SOMETIMES, just sometimes, football stories do have a fairytale ending.
Sheffield United’s derby opponents, Barnsley, are just a few pages away from completing their own following a tumultuous season which would have provided enough material for a half-decent Hollywood script.
But one player in the home ranks today also has his own compelling story.
The figure in question is loan defender Alex Baptiste, who, given what he has gone through previously during a harrowing campaign, is entitled to make hay while the sun shines.
After a thoroughly transitional campaign, the fact that the Blades – somehow –- have a faint whiff of the League One play-offs in their nostrils with three games of the season to go represents a major bonus for Unitedites, who will head to Bramall Lane this lunch-time with a touch of hope for the first time in months.
It is a bigger bonus for Baptiste, given his grim experiences in an injury-ravaged season which tested his mental as well as physical fortitude.
The thought of just playing in 2015-16 – never mind the possibility of being potentially involved in a play-off lottery – looked a million miles away during some dark days in late summer and autumn when he was recovering following an operation after suffering a horror double-fracture of a leg in his first appearance for new club Middlesbrough in a pre-season friendly at York City in July.
The ex-Bolton Wanderers and Blackpool defender was initially stuck at home in Lancashire and unable to move over to the north-east to be closer to his new place of employment as he rested his leg after surgery.
Then came the painstaking and gruelling rehabilitation grind, with the 30-year-old watching from afar as his Boro team-mates battled in out at the top of the Championship.
Farmed out to the Blades for the rest of the season to boost his fitness levels at the start of last month, Baptiste reached the top of his particular mountain when he strode out for his first game of the season against Burton on March 1.
It has gone pretty consummately since, with Baptiste looking the part for the Blades and few would begrudge him his rewards after a character-testing year.
Baptiste, who joined Boro on a three-year deal from Bolton, having spent last season on loan at Blackburn, said: “The time in my first game for the club (Middlesbrough) was heart-breaking and I don’t really want this season to end.
“If we can get something out of this season with us getting in the play-offs and having a go at it, it would be perfect.
“The lowest moment for me was probably first after the operation. Alan Judge did it (the same injury) recently and he is with my agent and I have rung him up and messaged him.
“I know it is a horrible injury to go through and basically I did eight weeks of doing nothing and was just sat in the house and going to Blackburn three days a week.
“I wasn’t even at the club I was at and we were just in the process of moving to the north-east and I had to stay at home for another two months watching Soccer Saturday and not being able to move.”
“It is good to be playing football again after being out for such a long time.
“The gaffer (Nigel Adkins) has been brilliant and I have played every game I have been here and I am enjoying the formation and the lads and staff are fantastic. I am really grateful for them giving me the chance.”
As for his longer term future, he added: “I have got another two years left (at Middlesbrough) and I just think they are happy for me to be playing again.
“I maybe didn’t think I’d play again this year, so we will see what happens.
“If Middlesbrough want me, I will work my hardest for them because I owe them that with the re-hab side they have done for me. I am an honest guy and work my hardest anyway but it’s up to them, the ball is in their court really.”
While Baptiste’s parent club are desperate to avoid the lottery of the play-offs as they strive for automatic promotion, that particular lifeline is keeping the Blades’ season alive, although to maintain their hopes, they must beat Barnsley this lunch-time.
Stories of teams gatecrashing the play-offs at the 11th hour are by no means infrequent, with Baptiste part of a Blackpool side who did something akin to that en route to promotion from the third tier in 2006-07. He hopes that lightning can strike twice.
One thing that the defender is promising is that the hosts – suddenly just four points behind Barnsley and sixth-placed Gillingham with three games to go heading into this weekend’s action – will not die wondering.
He added: “At Blackpool, in the first year we got promoted, we were about 10th and went on an unbelievable run and won nine out of 11.
“We were miles behind and came up on the rails and nicked the last place on the last day and the rest is history. We got promoted.
“We are in a position now where we can’t afford to lose and we are the underdogs.
“Barnsley is a tough game and they are a really good team and up there for a reason.
“We know it is going to be blood and thunder today and it’s a local derby and we must give them the respect they deserve, but make sure we are flying out of the blocks.
“If we get the three points, then you never know where it can take us.”