4 May ~ So it comes down to this. If Sheffield Wednesday beat already relegated Wycombe Wanderers at Hillsborough tomorrow, they will be promoted to the Championship. If they fail to win, they leave the door wide open for Sheffield United, who travel to another relegated side, Exeter City, to take second promotion spot and consign their rivals to the unpredictable play-offs. What has felt like a personal battle between the two clubs has been intense, often breathless and rarely dull during an absorbing League One season in which Charlton have dominated, and Huddersfield and MK Dons have tried to keep up.
Going into the Steel City derby on February 26, Sheffield United had the opportunity to move eight points clear of Wednesday. Despite the Owls' 1-0 win, Gary Megson was replaced by former Cardiff boss Dave Jones. “His first objective is to get us out of League One and back into the Championship,” said Milan Mandaric, the Wednesday chairman.
United's form over the past few months has not been bad but, since Jones took over, Wednesday's chase has been relentless. They are yet to suffer defeat under the new manager, winning nine of their last 12 games, scoring 24 and conceding just seven. United's slip-up finally came at MK Dons two weeks ago, the same day Wednesday scored a 95th-minute winner at home to Carlisle.
Last Saturday, with United not kicking off until later, Wednesday managed to grind out a 2-1 win at Brentford to move into second place. Pubs around London's St Pancras station showing Sheffield United's evening kick-off with Stevenage filled with travelling Wednesday fans, who had booked later trains home so they didn't miss the match. Stevenage went 2-0 up and, despite a late fightback from United, the 2-2 draw means that Wednesday have the advantage going into the final game of the season.
Any pre-match celebrations from the blue side of Sheffield would be premature. Wycombe have nothing to lose and score plenty of goals – Stuart Beavon alone has 25 in 44 appearances this season. They also have the worst defence in all four divisions, so it is unlikely they will want to sit back and defend for 90 minutes.
Wednesday should be too strong for their opponents and an early home goal would settle any nerves, but football is rarely predictable. For the first time in a long time, the pressure is on Wednesday and they have something to lose. To compete in the play-offs now would feel like a failure, no matter how far they have come since finishing 15th last season.
For either club to fail would be hard for their fans and players to take, not just because it would mean they have lost out to their rivals, but because they are so far ahead of the other clubs in the play-offs. Charlton are rightly champions but the form of the Sheffield clubs has blown the challenges of Huddersfield and MK Dons away in the closing stages. That a club could end up with over 90 points and not be promoted says a lot about the way Wednesday and United have pushed each other to the limits throughout the season.
All available home tickets at Hillsborough have sold out in anticipation of a promotion party, though the manager and players are aware they have to do more than just turn up. "I think some people are forgetting we still have a match to win," said Jones, who has just received April's Manager of the Month award. "At the moment we're not anticipating anything but a really hard game. Once we have earned promotion then the jubilation will come; if it doesn't then we have to get ready for the play-offs. We've got to try to make sure we win. We're going to have to earn it."
The 400 or so Wycombe fans who will make the journey to Sheffield have been moved to the rarely used North-West Corner. They will be part of the largest crowd outside the Premier League all season – one that will be bigger than all but nine clubs in the top division have managed. Should Wycombe cause an upset, they may find themselves with friends for life a few miles away at Bramall Lane. Tom Hocking