It was all over within the space of three minutes at Bramall Lane on Sunday afternoon, as two goals from Ryan Flynn and the spectactularly bearded John Brayford – with more than a little assistance from a deflection – were enough to send the League One club through to an FA Cup Semi-Final match to be played against Hull City of the Premier League at Wembley next month. There is little about Sheffield United’s run to this stage of the competition that doesn’t impress. Every match the team has played from the Third Round on has been against opposition from a higher division, with Aston Villa, Fulham, Nottingham Forest and Charlton Athletic now having been seen off, and the nature of the team’s performances have been those of a group of players riding the crest of a wave following a quite dreadful start to the season.
Furthermore, the team’s progress in the competition can hardly be considered to have been at the expense of league form. Since winning at Aston Villa in the Third Round in January, the team has won nine, drawn two and lost two of its matches in League One, a run that has lifted the team from the relegation places at the bottom of the table to eleventh position. Indeed, they have now not even conceded a goal in their last six matches, and this form may leave Blades supporters wondering where they might have ended up had this run of form not started earlier this season for, although the team sits comfortably in mid-table with a game or two in hand on more or less every team above them, they do remain, at the time of writing, eleven points from the play-off places and that sort of gap is a huge one to make up with thirteen matches of the season left to play, even if form is on their side, if for no other reason than that it requires several of the teams above them to hit the jitters as the season reaches its finals straits. Still, win those two games in hand and the gap is only five points in which case…game, as people used to say in the 1990s, on.
The club’s supporters can, at least dare to dream and a win against struggling Carlisle United in the league on Wednesday night could trim that gap a little more, and even this much is most likely considerably more than most supporters would have hoped for after the team followed its win at Villa Park by losing to a Notts County team the following Saturday that now sits at the bottom of the League One table. Indeed, as recently as the start of February the team sat in twenty-third place in the League One table, amid fears that a run in the cup and a couple of surprise results might start to disastrously affect a team with a relegation battle to face up to. With nine points now between them and the relegation places, however, bleak midwinter is already starting to feel like a distant memory. A trip to Wembley and mid-table security at least doesn’t look like being a bad return for a club that seemed to be staring relegation to League Two in the face just a few weeks ago.
The answer to the question of how this turnaround has been achieved could be answered in the form of a brace of managerial departures that have led to a huge improvement in the fortunes of two clubs in different divisions which came barely two weeks apart at the start of last autumn. On the twenty-eighth of September, Nigel Clough was relieved of his duties as the manager of Derby County after just nine league matches. The longest serving Derby manager in a decade left the club following a one-nil defeat at the hands of Nottingham Forest, oh irony of ironies, that left the club in fourteenth place in the table. Perhaps, we might reflect, Clough junior and Derby County had run their course together, and Derby have flourished under his replacement Steve McClaren, now sitting in third place in the Championship, some way adrift of second-placed Burnley but still nine points above seventh placed Wigan Athletic. A return to the Premier League is far from out of the question for the Rams.
What, next, though, for Nigel Clough? Well, he wasn’t out of work for very long. David Weir had been appointed as the manager of Sheffield United during the summer but his spell in charge of the team turned out to be as brief as it was unsuccessful and thirteen days after Clough’s departure from Pride Park, so Weir left Bramall Lane for the last time. It took just another week and a half for Sheffield United to announce that Nigel Clough would be taking on the challenge of jump-starting this stuttering Sheffield United team. It took a while for Clough to get his team to click into gear, but over recent weeks the team’s improvement in form has been phenomenal. Indeed, if this particulat leg of the managerial merry-go-round worked out well for both Derby County and Sheffield United, it might even be argued that David Weir hasn’t done too badly out of it all either. He was out of work for two months before being appointed as the assistant manager of Brentford, who are in third place in the League One table behind Wolverhampton Wanderers and who, due to the games in hand that they hold over Orient, have an excellent chance of winning automatic promotion themselves this season.
They’ll dream of a return to Wembley or two, of course. An appearance in an FA Cup Final and a League One play-off final isn’t completely out of the question, after all. Having said, that, however, both of these targets are obviously fiendish challenges. Hull City’s season in the Premier League has been better than most anticipated and, idiocy on the part of the owners of the club off the pitch notwithstanding (see posts in passim on this subject – there are quite a few of them on this site), manager Steve Bruce has achieved a considerable amount this season, taking the club to an almost-but-not-quite-safe thirteenth place in the Premier League and to its first FA Cup semi-final appearance since being beaten by Arsenal at this stage of the competition in 1930. Meanwhile, a place in the play-offs remains a possibility but maintaining focus on the league with the shininess of Wembley twinkling in the middle distance may well prove to be hard work for Nigel Clough. Still, though, at least we can probably all agree that it’s preferable to the position that the club was in just six weeks ago. After several years of decline so understated as to be almost imperceptible, the Blades are emerging back into the spotlight again.
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