Football is curiously unpredictable, and Sheffield United fans know it all too well. Little over a week ago, the Blades were sitting in an ominous mid-table position without a win in six matches. But after successive 1-0 victories, there is a strong chance that Nigel Adkins’ side will enter the New Year amongst the play-off places and their star striker may hit double-figures before even then.
Billy Sharp’s most prolific spell at his boyhood club has silenced the doubters, who had argued that the 29-year-old striker was past his sell-by-date when he signed for the Blades in the summer. What he lacks in pace, he more than makes up for with appetite, an eye for goal and assured finishing. Prior to this season, United supporters had not quite witnessed the full extent of Sharp’s potency, which had been in abundant supply during his time at Doncaster Rovers and Scunthorpe United. Now, he looks to be returning to the form he showed in September, when he scored in four consecutive matches.
Whilst Sharp’s scoring proficiency is greatly encouraging for the Blades, others must contribute. Ched Evans scored 29 goals in the 2011-12 season and yet United fell at the final hurdle, losing on penalties to Huddersfield at Wembley. The less said about that episode, the better. Conor Sammon is an easy target for the blame, having scored only one league goal since September. But there are others: Matt Done has netted two in the same period, and how the Blades could benefit from Che Adams, if he returns from suspension with a flurry of goals (he scored four in three October matches).
At the other end, things seem remarkably secure. Defensive stability is synonymous with Adkins – a goalkeeper in his playing days with Tranmere and Wigan – and, since shipping four goals at home to Shrewsbury, United have only conceded once in three matches. It was five years ago that Chris Morgan effectively hung up his boots, and eight years ago that Phil Jagielka left for Everton. In truth, Sheffield United defences have looked shaky ever since – Harry Maguire showed great promise before moving on also – and that’s no disrespect to Neil Collins, who has continued to perform consistently for United, despite the disappointment of failed promotion campaigns. Although he, like David Edgar and Jay McEveley, will suffice in League One, these players would be completely out of their depth should United succeed in their quest for Championship football. John Brayford is the stand-out defender capable of making the step-up, having previously played at a higher level with Derby and Cardiff.
Goalkeeper George Long has great potential – few doubt that – and back-to-back clean sheets have proved his worth. Concern surrounded the 22-year-old on opening day, when he had to pick the ball out of the net four times against Gillingham, but competition from Mark Howard has seen a steady improvement in the youngster’s performances. Criticism has often been focused on Long’s ability to command the penalty area, to collect crosses and clear danger – admittedly, hesitancy continues to litter what are otherwise assured displays between the posts.
The festive fixture list has looked kindly upon the Blades, geographically at least, if not in footballing terms. They cross the Pennines for a boxing day encounter with Wigan before welcoming Peterborough and Bradford to Bramall Lane. All three sides lie above United in the table, and multiple-goal performances will be essential if they are to climb the table. Sharp looks, well, sharp, but Sammon must rise to the challenge.