Promotion is now so tantalisingly close that Sheffield United can almost smell it.
Thirteen points clear of third-placed Fleetwood Town with only six games remaining, the stench of underachievement which has long enveloped Bramall Lane is about to be replaced by the sweet smell of success, accomplishment and attainment.
But, as Chris Basham acknowledged last night, there is still work to be done before Chris Wilder’s side can begin planning for the Championship with absolute certainty.
“The way the gaffer has always put it across to us is: ‘go out and do your business first,” Basham said. “Then anything can happen. It would be great if it does but, even if we do win, we won’t know until the game has finished as Fleetwood are playing at the same time. “
Basham, speaking ahead of this evening’s game against Coventry City, did his best to convince journalists that United believe a top two finish is still far from assured during yesterday’s pre-match press conference. After all, their manager has made it clear that any whiff of entitlement will draw a brutal response behind the scenes. But, while Wilder’s message has undoubtedly struck a chord, neither he nor Basham could keep up the pretence entirely during their respective Q&A’s. Beat City and, if Uwe Rosler’s side lose at Oxford, then promotion is guaranteed following last weekend’s unexpected round of results.
“We won’t really be interested in what’s happening with Fleetwood,” Basham insisted. “Because, like I say, we’ve got to take care of our business. But I’m sure we’ll get to know from the crowd, a ball boy or someone else. City aren’t just going to roll over, though. They’ll make us work hard for whatever we get.”
Wilder has not only overhauled United’s squad since replacing Nigel Adkins 11 months ago, he has transformed the atmosphere at their training complex too. Gone are the whispers and hushed tones players once adopted when they arrived at work or sloped through the communal areas. Now they shout, laugh and set-up What’s App groups.
“After training on Saturday, we were listening at home to TalkSport and the results were coming in,” Basham said. “It was a big lift for all the boys. I was sitting on the sofa saying to wife when the results came through: ‘Get in there’. She asked: ‘What’s going on?’ and I just said: ‘It’s the way that the results have come out’. On Monday morning everyone was buzzing and it was like you have played and won a cup final. It was crazy and all the lads were messaging in one group and we are just ecstatic with the way things are going at the minute. It sets it up really nicely for the title and promotion.”
“When we went home, we all said that we hoped that the results go our way and as soon as Swindon scored, Kieron Freeman messaged in: ‘The Fleetwood game’ and all that,” Basham continued. “All the ‘get in’ messages started coming in. Then with Chesterfield going to Bolton, you couldn’t see anything other than a win for Bolton. The good thing this year is that everyone can’t wait to get into training and we have that morale and togetherness. It’s a much more lively place.”
United are not the only League One club to have rediscovered some of their old swagger. Coventry City have too. Bottom of the table and despite seemingly being destined to leave the division by the trap rather than the front door, a battling performance saw Mark Robins’ side lift the Checkatrade Trophy at Wembley Stadium on Sunday. Confidence should be high when they lock horns with the runaway leaders tonight.
“If you look at League One now, you would probably say that they are relegated, but they might have that swagger of coming from a cup final with a bit of a confidence about them,” Basham said. “But our boys can not want to get out there and we’ll take it on. Coming in Monday was like we are virtually there, but the lads want to go on and win the title.”
The last meeting between these two teams was a surreal occasion as City supporters, who twice forced the contest to be halted, continued their protests against owners SISU. Billy Sharp, the division’s leading goalscorer, netted either side of Dan Agyei’s equaliser to draw United level on points with then leaders Scunthorpe and leave the hosts, now bottom of the table, in 21st place.
“It won’t be there for us straightaway because you’d expect City to have a bit of buzz,” Basham said. “But we want to go up and we want the title. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”