Sheffield Utd v Crewe: Blades are the best equipped for play-off encounters

BRING IT ON: Sheffield United's John Brayford. Picture: James Hardisty.
BRING IT ON: Sheffield United's John Brayford. Picture: James Hardisty.
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SHEFFIELD UNITED’S Cup heroics over the past 14 months or so have been nothing short of remarkable.

Two semi-final appearances and a host of Premier League scalps would be an impressive performance by any side, never mind one currently residing in League One.

For John Brayford, what those memorable triumphs in knockout football can also do is boost the Blades’ hopes of not only clinching a place in the top six but then going on to win promotion by ending the club’s own play-off hoodoo at the eighth time of asking.

“The play-offs are what we want to be involved in,” the January £1m arrival from Cardiff City told The Yorkshire Post. “And I do believe we would have a bit of an advantage because of all the Cup games we have played in.

“The lads have shown time after time that they can deal with the pressure of those big games and knockout football.

“Experience like that could be invaluable. There certainly won’t be many in this division who have had the same experiences as us over the last couple of years.

“We know what it is all about and how to perform in big games when the pressure is on. That has to be a good thing.”

Following back-to-back victories over Port Vale and Scunthorpe United in the past week, Nigel Clough’s side are in a healthy position.

Six points separate the Blades from Barnsley in seventh place with eight games remaining and another victory today at home to struggling Crewe Alexandra would surely allow the planning for a tilt at the promotion deciders to begin in earnest.

As any United fan will wearily attest, the play-offs have been far from a happy hunting ground for the south Yorkshire side.

In seven far from magnificent attempts at winning promotion, the Blades are yet to taste success despite making it through to the final on four occasions.

The most recent of those came in 2011-12 when, after being pipped to second place by Steel City rivals Wednesday, more disappointment lay in store via a Wembley defeat to Huddersfield Town on penalties.

Such a woeful record, however, is not on the minds of Clough and his squad after producing arguably their most complete performance of the season in midweek when thrashing Scunthorpe 4-0.

“We knew Tuesday was our game in hand so it was important that we went out and won it,” said Brayford, who spent the second half of last season on loan at Bramall Lane.

“I’d imagine the other teams around us were looking at Tuesday and saying, ‘They might slip up here’. I am sure they were all hoping that, at least. But after that result, I think they’ll realise we are in no mood to slip up. It was a real marker, in that respect.

“The main thing, though, was we wanted to put a bit of a gap between ourselves and the rest so the lads deserve praise for that.

“It was a complete performance. We started strong and on the front foot. That is something I have found with this league, if you get the first goal then you can push on and really punish people.

“I felt we were really clinical. It is a good time to have that sort of performance, too. It gives everyone a lift at a time when you are down to the nitty-gritty of a season.

“They are all Cup finals now. I know that is a bit of a cliché but they really are. If we can get performances like that, it has to be a good thing.

“Results are everything at this stage but if you can get performances as well then that should really help us a lot.”

Ahead of taking on Vale in the first of three consecutive home games, Clough declared this week to be potentially the most important to date for his side.

A glance at what April will bring for United adds further weight to that thinking, with derbies against Barnsley, Doncaster Rovers and Bradford City having extra spice due to all four Yorkshire clubs being in the hunt for a place in the top six.

“There is a bit of momentum building,” said Brayford, who again filled in at the heart of the United defence against Scunthorpe. “Just as it was at the end of last season.

“We finished seventh but were never quite going to make it last year. The results, though, were good and we have to think back to last season to show what sort of run we can go on.

“Performances like Scunthorpe do give you confidence. Our home form has been a bit up and down at times this season so two wins and two clean sheets was big for all of us.

“Now, though, we have another home game coming up against Crewe and the marker has been laid down. We want to repeat the sort of performance we had on Tuesday night.”

It is almost four years since United were relegated from the Championship and they started this term as favourites with the bookmakers to win the title.

That, of course, has not worked out, a susceptibility to drop points at the Lane ending any hopes of the Blades keeping pace with the four-team group that broke away from the rest of League One before the halfway stage of the campaign.

Now, the priority is cementing a third play-off challenge in four years.

“The mindset is important,” said Brayford, who has been an ever-present in the league since rejoining United towards the end of the January transfer window.

“Okay, we have a cushion but there are so many teams chasing that we have to be on our guard.

“All it needs is one or even two of those teams to go on a run and things will be tight again. That gap can easily be narrowed down.

“That said, if we keep playing like we did against Scunthorpe then I can’t see anyone catching us.”