11 May ~ There has been a sad inevitability about the late dip by Sheffield United that allowed our cross-city rivals to steal in on the penultimate weekend and take second place. The Ched Evans court case has inevitably affected the final weeks of United's season, but not in the way outsiders might have expected. Evans contributed 35 of United's 92 goals this season, and while his goalscoring was missed, the psychological impact on the team was clearly visible to the United fans that travelled to Milton Keynes, just 24 hours after the guilty verdict.
With as flat a team performance as had been seen all season and Evans' hard-working foil Richard Cresswell absent through injury, United struggled. The player recruited by manager Danny Wilson to replace Evans did not help the situation. Will Hoskins, who was clearly struggling for fitness, succumbed to a season-ending hernia problem and has since returned to Brighton, his parent club. With little playing time in recent weeks, the other strikers lacked sharpness.
Shortly after James Beattie had failed to convert an opportunity to equalise from six yards out, news filtered through to the travelling support of Wednesday's injury-time winner against Carlisle. From potentially going into the final home game against Stevenage with a three-point lead and a far superior goal difference to Wednesday, the gap was down to one and the Owls could (and would) strike the psychological blow of being two points clear in second by the time the Blades kicked off in the teatime game on Sky.
It was a blow from which United have not recovered. Danny Wilson will have all his focus on raising his team for a final push in the play-offs. In their last three games United lacked both the fluidity of passing and attacking verve that characterised much of the season. James Beattie's reckless stupidity in picking up a red card in the final game at Exeter has exacerbated United's lack of attacking potency.
United's season has been predicated on attractive passing football and exciting attacking play, with advancing full-backs providing width. The focus on scoring goals allows more leeway to a promising, but inexperienced, defence that is susceptible under pressure. With goals harder to come by and the ball not sticking in the forward areas in the last three games, the results have suffered.
Stevenage out-muscled United at the Lamex stadium earlier in the season and they were powerful, pacey and exciting to watch in the game at Bramall Lane, opening up the Blades with ease at times. With limited attacking options and the worst record in games between the top six, most Blades fans would accept a draw tonight with a view to finally beating Stevenage on what they would hope to be another memorable play-off night at Bramall Lane on Monday. Ian Rands