AS a lifelong supporter and someone who was manager when Sheffield United suffered play-off heartache, Neil Warnock feels for his old club ahead of today’s final locking of horns in the Steel City fight for supremacy in League One.
Wednesday’s victory at Brentford a week ago coupled with United being held at home by Stevenage means Dave Jones’s side are the overwhelming favourites to clinch automatic promotion.
Even a victory for the Blades at Exeter City will not be enough to pip the Owls if, as expected, Wycombe Wanderers lose at Hillsborough. Warnock feels for his former club.
He said: “I just can’t see Sheffield Wednesday slipping up now. The momentum that Dave (Jones) has brought to Wednesday along with Milan Mandaric has kept them snapping at United’s heels.
“They have been waiting for one big mistake and eventually it came.
“I do feel a little bit sad for Danny (Wilson) and the club over the Ched Evans incident, which had nothing to do with the manager. To lose your top scorer is a blow and you try to keep things going but it can be difficult.
“The rivalry in Sheffield means it is going to be hard for the Blades fans if Wednesday do go up. They are going to get ribbed left, right and centre.
“United need to go up. The ground, the fan base and so on is fantastic, as it is at Wednesday.
“My first objective when I became United manager (in 1999) was to make us the best club in Sheffield. All my life, it hadn’t been the case and it was always thrown at us that Wednesday were bigger.
“But we managed to do it. We beat their average crowd before I left, which was fantastic. We also got into the Premier League. But it looks like Wednesday will be the one that finishes second this season.
“So it is really a case of the Blades having to stop feeling sorry for themselves after Saturday and get on with it.
“If the Blades finish third it will be because they were the third best team in the division. Then they will have to prove it in the play-offs.
“The promotion race has been great for Sheffield but this should be happening at the top of the Championship, not League One. The clubs being in this position is difficult to accept from a fans’ point of view.”
With both Wednesday and United facing teams already relegated, the likelihood is that the Steel City rivals could both end the season with a victory.
Should that prove to be the case, the Owls will finish a point ahead of their bitter rivals and ensure Wilson’s side will become the first to amass 92 points in a season and not win automatic promotion in the history of the Football League.
The only other club to reach the 90-point mark and miss out on a place in the top two was Sunderland in the 1997-98 Division One season when the North East side went on to lose the play-off final to Charlton Athletic on penalties.
If the Blades do win today at Exeter City but still miss out, Warnock believes his old club can avoid the double frustration suffered by Peter Reid’s Black Cats 14 years ago.
He said: “When I’ve finished third, most of the time we have won the play-offs – though I have never finished with as many points as United have got.
“There was one year, though, when at Notts County and we finished 17 points clear of Bolton Wanderers. I felt aggrieved we had to face Bolton in the play-offs.
“I was even more aggrieved in the first leg at the old Burnden Park when the referee gave a diabolical penalty against us. So, we were 1-0 down and it was chucking down with rain – I couldn’t help but think, ‘We finished 17 points clear of this lot and are going to get knocked out’.
“But we equalised and beat them in the second leg. It can be unjust at times when you finish 17 points clear of a team and they can go up instead of you but those are the rules.”
On the chances of United and Wednesday kicking off next season in the Championship, Warnock added: “My chairman here at Leeds (Ken Bates) is desperate for both Sheffield clubs to go up. And Bolton and Blackburn Rovers to come down because the gates against those will be bigger.
“If United are in the play-offs, they will be up against some good teams.
“Stevenage and MK Dons are very, very good, while Huddersfield Town have the squad. So, it is going to be a very difficult play-offs.”