Championship run-in: Leeds United and Sheffield United aim to avoid ‘killing grounds’

CHRIS WILDER, the Sheffield United manager, describes Saturday’s Elland Road showdown with Leeds United as “a humdinger”.

In top form: Leeds United's Pablo Hernandez applauds the fans at Reading. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Leeds midfielder Pablo Hernandez, meanwhile, contents himself with the tag “big game” as Yorkshire’s two challengers for automatic promotion prepare to go head-to-head in the game of the weekend in the Football League.

Both are right. This 80th meeting between these two old foes needs no hype and no selling. All tickets were shifted in double-quick time, leaving those fortunate enough to get their hands on one to count down the days until the two Uniteds do battle.

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Confidence should not be a problem for either combatant. Leeds, fresh from as comfortable a 3-0 victory as there is at Reading on Tuesday night, have taken 15 points from the last six games.

Blades, meanwhile, are in even better form with five wins and a draw over the same period. This run has continued an upturn in results since Christmas that has seen 33 points claimed from a possible 42.

The most recent of those victories came on Tuesday night via a quite magnificent rearguard action when playing with 10 men for almost an hour against Brentford.

Gary Madine’s red card handed the initiative to the Bees, but United swatted them away to triumph 2-0. It was a performance and victory that Wilder, a lifelong fan, believes should be enough to convince a support base he admits has suffered more than its fair share of heart-breaking setbacks down the years.

“The players have always had that belief,” the 51-year-old told The Yorkshire Post. “But maybe it is that pessimism we have as Yorkshire people and because of all the things that can go wrong – and maybe have gone wrong in the past.

Job done: Sheffield United coaching staff led by Chris Wilder celebrate the win. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“This, though, is a new group of players and a new group of staff. It is relentless with what we are going into now. But the players showed that attitude to say, ‘We are not going away’.”

Eight previous tilts at the play-offs that have yielded zero promotions illustrates just why all Blades fans are desperate to go straight up.

Up the M1 there is a similar pessimism surrounding what has become a killing ground for Leeds’s promotion hopes. Charlton ’87, Cardiff ’06 and Wembley ’08 are three finals that no one at Elland Road remembers fondly, while the less said about losing to Millwall in the semi-finals a decade ago the better.

All these disappointment pre-date the arrival of Hernandez, no stranger to the big occasion as a former Spain international who competed in the Champions League. He believes remaining calm on Saturday will be key.

“We have nine games in front of us and we have a great chance to go to the Premier League,” said the 33-year-old, who took his tally of goals for the season into double figures in the win over Reading.

“But I don’t think too much about this now. Only that I remember the feeling when I won the (League) Cup with Swansea (in 2013) and now I hope I can live a great feeling at the end of the season with this club and with this city and these fans.”

Norwich City, the club completing the triumvirate chasing automatic promotion, coincidentally are also in Yorkshire this Saturday, at Rotherham United.

It is one of six meetings in the final nine games for the Canaries with teams in the bottom half of the table.

Leeds and the Blades can only look on with envy at such a schedule especially as their own contain plenty of potential banana skins.

The double-header on the road at Preston North End and Birmingham City in early April leaps out for both Yorkshire clubs, as does Sheffield Wednesday’s trip to Elland Road.

Come through these and surely both White Rose challengers will be happy to be facing rock-bottom Ipswich Town in the final nine days.

Plenty of twists and turns await and supporters will no doubt spend the remaining weeks updating their predictor leagues.

Hernandez, though, plans to do nothing of the sort.

“The more important thing for us is not to think about the other teams,” said the Spaniard, mindful Leeds can open a five-point advantage over their Yorkshire rivals this weekend. “We know if we win the games then we will be promoted.

“Sometimes I think it is a mistake when you spend a lot of time watching the other teams – if they lose, if they win.

“The most important thing is to focus on our games, to try to win all games and if we win there is no problem if the other teams win all their games.”

Wilder, a veteran from the Blades’ squad that travelled to Elland Road on Easter Monday in 1990 for what was billed as a promotion decider between the two Yorkshire clubs, agrees with Hernandez.

“I would like to think so,” he replied when asked if the win over Brentford could be season-defining. “But you can only look back at the end of the season.

“In my first year (when the Blades won the League One title) we looked back at certain games along the way. But you can only do that if you are successful.

“Tuesday felt like a big win for the supporters and it felt like a big win for the players.

“What matters now though is recovery. The next 24 hours are key because we have got a humdinger of a game coming up at Elland Road – and rightly so because of the form and position both teams are in.”