SPRING is in the air for Sheffield United fans – although it is nothing to do with the lighter nights and blooming crocuses.
For them it is all about seasonal change on the football pitch, with the buoyant Blades – who went 13 games without a win in the first half of the campaign – having now bagged eight successive victories in a massive rebirth in 2013-14.
Their latest success, over Peterborough United, was achieved thanks to a majestic free-kick from Ben Davies just after the interval and a late second from top-scorer Chris Porter. No one could say it was not fully deserved.
Blades’ manager Nigel Clough will not thank anyone for mentioning the play-offs, but United are now up to 10th in League One, having cut the gap between themselves and the Posh, who sit sixth, to eight points.
While Blades fans have Wembley on the horizon in the FA Cup next month – which will hopefully become reality at Charlton Athletic’s expense on Sunday – they might have a sniff of another appearance at the home of football the following month.
Granted, Posh still look the stronger bet of visiting Wembley on two fronts, their place in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final pencilled in while boasting a handy buffer over their play-off rivals.
But United are not without hope. As Jose Baxter said on Monday, stranger things have happened. Especially given a campaign which is starting to resemble a feast after a famine.
When the Blades travelled to London Road for the reverse fixture back on October 22 they were in a sorry mess, stuck in the bottom four of the table, with their 0-0 draw at Posh annexing only their ninth point of the campaign.
Accused of parking the bus in front of goal by Posh boss Darren Ferguson in their quest for their first clean sheet of the season, the Blades are now positively motoring upwards. In their direction.
The Blades have not conceded a league goal for six games – a grand total of nine hours – since Byron Moore netted for Crewe in their 3-0 win back on February 1.
One more shut-out would equal the club record set by John Harris’s Division Two promotion class of 1970-71.
No doubt mindful of his players’ fixture overload, Clough freshened up his side in a major way, making six changes, with the surprise starting inclusion of Terry Kennedy and Callum McFadzean the noteworthy promotions.
Kennedy, 20, was handed his first league start at Bramall Lane and just his second for the Blades, lining up in the heart of the back four with Neill Collins.
McFadzean made the starting XI in the league for the first time since August 24, with Billy Paynter and Shaun Miller given the nod up front.
Porter, Baxter and Stefan Scougall were among those kept in reserve on a strong-looking bench.
Posh also made a big selection call with 24-goal Brett Assombalonga dropped from the starting line-up, but it was the visitors who manufactured the first chance.
Tommy Rowe was left unmarked in front of goal following Grant McCann’s corner, only to fail to get a firm header in with the goal gaping.
It proved an isolated moment, with the Blades soon flexing their muscles, Michael Doyle and Conor Coady pulling the strings in midfield.
It was the latter’s cross-shot which almost yielded an opener, his 16th-minute effort being diverted just over his own goal by Mark Little before Stephen McGinn’s well-struck shot was held by Bobby Olejnik.
McFadzean then saw his low strike deflected off target after Posh failed to deal with Davies’s free-kick, but it proved his last involvement with the youngster replaced by Ryan Flynn after taking a knock.
It failed to halt the Blades’ momentum and they went agonisingly close to a breakthrough on 37 minutes when McGinn’s angled low shot crashed against a post, with Paynter firing the follow-up straight at Olejnik.
Posh had another scare before the break when Miller fired over following a quick break, with the only thing missing for the Blades in another strong first period being a goal.
No doubt cajoled at the interval by Clough to keep doing the same things, they did not have to wait long for their prize.
It came courtesy of a sublime piece of skill from a recent addition in Davies, who displayed the set-piece prowess the Blades’ chief knew he possessed in his locker at Derby.
It arrived after Miller was fouled, with Davies’s exquisite effort flying past the motionless Olejnik.
Assombalonga was thrown into the fray, but failed to relight the attacking fires of Posh to any significant degree. It was United who possessed the polish with McGinn firing over before the impressive Coady just failed to convert at the far post after good work from Flynn.
The Liverpool loanee blazed another chance over while at the other end Mark Howard looked as safe as houses, with the Blades also getting men behind the ball to smother Posh.
Flynn spurned another chance before Porter rubber-stamped the win with a cool finish – his ninth goal of the campaign – following a neat assist from fellow substitute Stefan Scougall.
Sheffield United: Howard; Davies, Kennedy, Collins, Hill; McFadzean (Flynn 25), Coady, Doyle, McGinn (Scougall 53); Paynter (Porter 66), Miller. Unused substitutes: Harris, Baxter, Long, Reed.
Peterborough United: Olejnik; Little, Brisley, Baldwin, Alcock (Newell 64); Swanson, McQuoid (Assombalonga 55), McCann, Rowe, Ajose, Washington (Bostwick 55). Unused substitutes: Ntlhe, Payne, Day, Kearns.
Referee: N Miller (C Durham).