Thirteen years of exile from the Premier League. Now, Chris Wilder and Sheffield United have seven games to prove they have the steel to return.
The Championship is famed for its uncertainty and unpredictability, so it is truly impossible to predict the outcome of these final games. Going into this weekend off the back of a shock win over promotion rivals Leeds at Elland Road, Blades have been looking in the driving seat for promotion.
They remained firmly there until 77 minutes into their game with Bristol City on Saturday. Wilder’s men led 2-1 entering the final ten minutes, with a four-point lead over Leeds, who were losing at Millwall. It seemed like it was going to be the perfect afternoon for Sheffield United in front of a packed Bramall Lane crowd.
But football is never that simple. Two quick-fire Andi Weimann goals flipped the game on its head, with the Austrian completing his hat-trick to put Lee Johnson’s Bristol City into a shock lead. Over in London, Luke Ayling and Pablo Hernandez netted important goals for Leeds to put them ahead against Millwall. From four points ahead as the table stood, both results had been flipped and Blades were now third in the table, a point behind Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds side.
With seven games to go and just two points separating the two, we have a look at the remaining fixtures for both sides chasing the second automatic promotion spot (assuming the magnificent Norwich City go on to win the league).
We’ve spoken to expert fans from both clubs, who have given their predictions for the run-in. Both are optimistic, but know it will be a tough month or so.
Mark Picken, Leeds fan, said: “I think the season will end with Norwich winning the league, Leeds going up in second and Villa winning the play offs. Norwich don’t seem to be slipping up and I think the pressure will start to get to Sheffield United who will continue to drop points.”
Ben from Blades Pod, a fanatical podcast for Sheffield United followers, said: “The next two games are the tricky ones and we may be relying on Leeds dropping points to keep us in the hunt. But after that I could see us going on a run to end the season – it’s just whether it will be enough for second spot.”
Gameweek 40: Preston v Sheffield Utd; Birmingham v Leeds
Both teams have potentially tricky away trips this Saturday, going to unpredictable teams that could easily cause an upset.
Preston, who have already beat league leaders Norwich and play-off hopefuls Middlesbrough in recent weeks, could well pose a threat for the Blades. They will be eager to bounce back from their loss at relegation scrappers Reading, but overall Sheffield United should have enough to return to South Yorkshire with a win over the Lancashire side.
Birmingham are an unpredictable force too, for Leeds. Garry Monk, once of Leeds, has already beaten his old side this season, with a 2-1 win at Elland Road in September. They have been deducted points in recent weeks and have lost their last five fixtures, so Leeds should really win this one. Monk’s men will be low on confidence after their late loss against Midlands rivals West Brom last Friday.
Blades Pod prediction: Preston 2-1 Blades
Mark Picken prediction: Birmingham 1-2 Leeds
Gameweek 41: Birmingham v Sheffield Utd; Preston v Leeds
Roles reversed the following midweek, with Leeds having a chance to put pressure on Blades with their Tuesday night trip to Preston.
As we have seen in the Premier League title race, playing first can give a huge psychological advantage, and Bielsa’s men may react well to this.
24 hours later, Sheffield United travel to Birmingham. Playing after could work in their favour, though. If Leeds were to lose or draw the night before, it could give United a huge chance to close the gap and overtake Leeds. A key subplot here is Che Adams, Birmingham’s star man who grew up in the Blades academy. He has been one of the better forwards in the division this season and could pose questions of the Sheffield United defence.
Blades Pod prediction: Birmingham 1-1 Blades
Mark Picken prediction: Preston 2-2 Leeds
Gameweek 42: Sheffield Utd v Millwall; Leeds v Sheffield Wednesday
This gameweek promises to be one of the most exciting of the run-in, with a tough test coming for Leeds in the form of Sheffield Wednesday.
Wednesday, who are huge rivals with Leeds due to the Yorkshire links, could help or hamper their arch enemies’ and city neighbours chances with their game at Leeds.
In a similar situation to Manchester United v City in the Premier League title race, Wednesday will have to accept the fact that a win over their rivals Leeds could give a huge hand to their biggest rivals Sheffield United.
What a scenario.
Blades Pod prediction: Blades 3-0 Millwall
Mark Picken prediction: Leeds 2-0 Wednesday
Gameweek 43: Sheffield Utd v Nottm Forest; Leeds v Wigan
The big games keep coming, with Sheffield United having an extremely tough test against Nottingham Forest on Good Friday at 12.30pm.
Forest are an unpredictable team, and have proved they are tough to beat in big games this season, having a good performance against the likes of Leeds, Boro and West Brom this season.
Leeds play later that day against Wigan, in a game that they should really win against a side that could well be dragged into the relegation race.
Blades Pod prediction: Blades 2-0 Forest
Mark Picken prediction: Leeds 2-0 Wigan
Gameweek 44: Hull v Sheffield Utd; Brentford v Leeds
Both teams face tricky away trips on Easter Monday, with Hull and Brentford both very good at home.
While both promotion chasers will be the bookies favourites for these games, you wouldn’t put too much on a Leeds/Blades double.
The Easter weekend could decide a lot of things.
Blades Pod prediction: Hull 1-1 Blades
Mark Picken prediction: Brentford 0-1 Leeds
Gameweek 45: Sheffield Utd v Ipswich; Leeds v Aston Villa
On the penultimate weekend, Leeds face possibly their trickiest test – on paper – of the run-in. Aston Villa have the look of the typical play-off winning force that goes on a formidable run in the final months. With Jack Grealish back to his best, Tammy Abraham firing on all cylinders, and loan signing Tyrone Mings solidifying a poor defence, Dean Smith’s Villa side look like a tough match for anyone.
In front of a surely packed Elland Road, Leeds may have an upper hand. The roaring tunes from the stands certainly have helped Bielsa’s side over the line against many teams this season, and could do so again in this one, but it will definitely be a tough game.
Blades Pod prediction: Blades 2-0 Ipswich
Mark Picken prediction: Leeds 3-3 Villa
Gameweek 46: Stoke v Sheffield Utd; Ipswich v Leeds
Both sides have a winnable away tie on the final day, with Ipswich having a chance to have a say in the promotion race via playing both in the last two weeks.
The Tractor Boys will most likely be relegated by then, but we have seen in the past that relegated sides can turn up with the pressure off, so three points are by no means guaranteed for either team.
Blades Pod prediction: Stoke 1-3 Blades
Mark Picken prediction: Ipswich 0-2 Leeds