A campaign which promised so much is threatening - nay, promising - to peter out with a whimper. United, installed as pre-season title favourites by bookies, go into this weekend’s meeting with third-placed Walsall in the bottom half of the League One table, after Wednesday evening’s TV nasty at Southend all but signalled the end of their play-off hopes.
Boss Nigel Adkins, hailed and heralded when he arrived, perhaps underestimated the size of the task he had inherited at Bramall Lane. A bloated squad didn’t help, nor did a growing mood of panic after yet another failed play-off campaign.
After their opening-day defeat at Gillingham, which saw them hammered 4-0, it couldn’t get much worse for United. The trouble is, it’s not got a great deal better, either. United have shown glimpses of what they’re capable of - victories over Bradford and Coventry, a battling comeback away at probably champions Wigan - but have strung together consecutive league victories just twice all season.
In 10 games against the current top six, they’ve won one. Even last weekend - against bottom club Crewe, who have lost or drawn 42 of their last 49 games - United contrived to almost throw away two points, before Billy Sharp rescued them once more.
By my rather crude maths, Sharp’s goals have salvaged, or earned, United 14 points this term. Take that off United’s total and they’d be level on points with fourth-bottom Oldham. (It’s easy to say ‘someone else would have scored the goals’ but potential replacements Matt Done (five) and Conor Sammon (five) suggest it wouldn’t be that easy).
Against a backdrop of players leaving, barren transfer windows and Jose Baxter’s off-field indiscretions, United have lost their way. On and off the field; the mood around Bramall Lane against Crewe was akin to a pre-season friendly, as antipathy creeps across the terraces. There is light at the end of the tunnel, though, with a huge summer clear-out on the horizon and a fresh influx of talented youngsters.
One thing is certain; Nigel Adkins will remain positive until the very end. Blades fans will continue to paint a sorry picture; for some, the glass isn’t only half-full but full of cracks and leaking rapidly.
The reality, as it usually is, is somewhere in the shades of grey inbetween. If the clouds of doom aren’t allowed to envelope Bramall Lane, and Adkins’ young pretenders get the right backing next term, then the Championship could beckon. At last.