Sheffield United v Swindon Town: Neill Collins says Blades have finally found right combination at back

Sheffield United's David Edgar keeps Wayne Rooney at bay at Old Trafford.
Sheffield United's David Edgar keeps Wayne Rooney at bay at Old Trafford.
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Neill Collins is hoping he has finally found a centre-back replacement for Harry Maguire at Sheffield United.

The Blades have struggled to find a defensive partnership to better the Collins-Maguire alliance since the latter was sold to Hull City 18 months ago.

Collins even found himself out of the team last season – finishing the campaign on loan at Port Vale – as then manager Nigel Clough employed various defensive combinations.

But the 32-year-old Scotsman has been a regular under current United manager Nigel Adkins and has formed an impressive partnership with Canadian international David Edgar.

The on-loan Birmingham City defender, Collins and full-backs John Brayford and Jay McEveley have started the last seven games to bring a settled look to United’s defence.

That has brought four wins, a 3-3 draw at Wigan, plus a narrow defeat at Manchester United in the FA Cup when only a late penalty from Wayne Rooney prevented a replay at Bramall Lane.

Collins believes the merits of a settled defensive pairing can sometimes be overlooked in football.

“People don’t realise that a centre-back partnership is the one position on the park that is more a combination than an individual thing,” he said.

“You can be playing really well, but if your partner is making mistakes and team is losing goals, then it makes you look bad.

“It’s good to have a settled partnership and it’s only after 15-20 games when you get an idea of what it’s going to be like.

“The more you play, the stronger it gets. I was so fortunate to play so many games with Harry (Maguire), but since then that’s been one of our biggest problems.

“Through either injury or form, we have never had a settled partnership. Across the back four, it makes such a difference.”

Conceding eight goals in their last four games may not immediately reflect Collins’s optimism.

But when you consider that six of those goals came from the attack-minded Peterborough United and Wigan – a 3-2 home loss and a 3-3 draw – then there are mitigating circumstances.

Less so when you look at United’s record at Bramall Lane, where they have suffered five home defeats already this campaign from 13 outings.

It is the reason the Blades sit just outside the play-offs in League One, rather than challenging for automatic promotion. Not that Collins is paying too much attention to the league table in January.

“I try not to look at the table,” said the former Leeds United defender. “I hate it when we are not top four or five.

“But getting in the play-offs would be good. This league is so tight this season and there are a lot of teams well within touching distance. There’s still half a season left, so we want to get into the play-off positions, and once we get there, to keep moving on.

“We have seen over the years, how at this stage of the season, there is still a lot of positions which can change.

“We have 20 games to go. We need to get wins on the board as quickly as possible to put pressure on others.

“Every game, once you turn the corner at the halfway stage, now means something. Everyone has something to really play for. Relegation, play-offs or automatic promotion. Very seldom is there a team out of both.

“People start to feel the pressure, Sir Alex Ferguson called it the ‘squeeky bum time’.

“When you are playing someone fighting relegation and you’re chasing promotion, it makes it a tense affair. In August or September, everyone still hold dreams of having a fantastic season. Now it’s the nitty gritty.”

The Blades face another of League One’s more attack-minded sides in Swindon Town today at Bramall Lane.

After three successive away games, Collins is happy to be back on home turf, and looking to put pressure on the division’s top six. Burton Albion and Walsall occupy the division’s automatic promotion spots, followed by Gillingham, Coventry City, Wigan and Peterborough.

“First and foremost, we have to win our games,” he said. “If we win games, we will be in there and, on top of that, it will put pressure on others.

“Everyone has to play each other, we have a lot of the top teams at home, and if we win them it will put us in a really good position.

“Last week was a very tough week. We went to Old Trafford, gave everything and should have got a replay.

“We didn’t, so you have the psychological blow of that – plus the physical fatigue – before going to Wigan, which was a really strange game where I don’t think we deserved to be 3-0 down.

“But we pulled it back, showed unbelievable character and we were all very pleased to come away with a point.

“After going down to Colchester and winning, it ended up being a really good week.

“The only disappointment was not getting the replay (at Manchester United) but there were a lot of positives to take.

“The Wigan fightback was great to have in our locker. I have been in teams that you know will not come back after going behind. It’s not about character, it’s just you’re not that type of team.”

Collins is pragmatic enough to accept that today’s game could be another open contest, with Swindon adopting a cavalier approach to going forward.

He said: “You go out every week with the intention of keeping a clean sheet. But you have Peterborough, for instance, who play so open and expansive, with four or five attacking players.

“They are gambling on trying to create more chances than the opposition.

“You can either go more defensive against them and try to nullify them and risk losing a bit of yourself. It’s a balancing act.”