Sheffield United v Preston: Blades are backed to relaunch promotion challenge

Richard Stearman believes Sheffield United will be 'a force to be reckoned with' in next season's Championship.

Richard Stearman celebrates with Leon Clarke. (Picture: PA)
Richard Stearman celebrates with Leon Clarke. (Picture: PA)

The Blades still harbour faint hopes of gatecrashing the play-offs, but would need to win their final two games – at home to Preston North End today and next Sunday’s trip to Bristol City – and hope for an unlikely set of results elsewhere.

Chris Wilder’s side are five points adrift of sixth-placed Derby County ahead of their final game at Bramall Lane this season.

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But for defender Stearman, United have proven – after promotion from League One last term – that they are genuine promotion contenders this season.

And with a few choice additions in the summer transfer window, Stearman – who won promotion from the Championship previously with Wolves – believes a top-six finish should be United’s target next year.

“I think next year we will be stronger for the season we have had,” said Stearman.

“With that experience, and a few more faces, I think we will be a force to be reckoned with next season.

“For the majority of the squad – and the staff – it’s a season in the Championship, which builds up experience.

Richard Stearman knew how costly last weeks defeat to Birmingham was for Sheffield United (Picture: Richard Stearman)

“Players, no doubt, will come in. I think we were a little bit light over the Christmas period, and maybe that affected us a little bit, and the gaffer rectified that.

“There will be some new faces coming in, I am sure, and maybe one or two going the other way.

“The vast majority of the squad haven’t played that many games at this level before.

“Going forward, they will be able to draw on this season’s experience, in those tight-knit games where we have been dealt a few sucker-punches.

Richard Stearman knew how costly last weeks defeat to Birmingham was for Sheffield United (Picture: Richard Stearman)

“It will give those players confidence they can perform at this level, knowing that despite all the big names, big clubs and money spent, we can compete at this level and thrive.

“I am confident with the squad and staff we have got – with a couple more additions – we will be all the stronger going into next.

“We have taken it to a lot of the big boys this season, and picked up a lot of points.

“It’s very disappointing that it looks like we could fall short, but we have proved we can compete.

“To get promotion it takes a lot of the values we have at this club, sprinkled with a little bit of luck, which we have not had our fair share this season. Hopefully, we can find that next year.”

United have not written off their play-off chances this season, but it seems unlikely with four other clubs – Preston, Bristol City, Brentford and Millwall – all above the Blades waiting for the Rams to slip up.

A run of just one win in their last seven outings – against Middlesbrough – has seen the Blades slide out of contention.

Stearman said: “It’s obviously going to be a tough ask, we need to pick up two wins and hope other results go our way.

“We will keep fighting to the end, hope a bit of magic can happen, and we can sneak back in there.

“We have missed a couple of opportunities to pick up points, where we felt we should have done.

“Even if it’s not possible, we still want to win games and put on a show for the fans.

“Due to our great start, obviously there will be disappointment if we don’t make the play-offs. There’s no hiding from that.

“But we shouldn’t forget how well we have done this season.

“It will be a massive disappointment if we do fall short, but you have to congratulate everyone at the club for what we have done this season.

“It’s been a long hard season, and maybe the games have taken their toll a little bit.

“But that’s no excuse, we feel we should have got more points and been sat comfortably in the play-offs.

“Everyone down here is disappointed.”

While the top six of Wolves, Cardiff City, Fulham, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Derby County have all enjoyed huge budgets, the chasing pack have shown a good team ethic can bridge the financial gap.

United, today’s visitors Preston, Millwall and Brentford all have modest budgets but sit in the top half of the Championship.

“Money doesn’t guarantee you success, but it certainly gives you a better chance,” said 30-year-old Stearman.

“You can see a lot of teams near the top who have spent money, but then there are others who haven’t.

“You have to put that down to a team ethic, work-rate and a good set of lads – and I think we fall into that category.

“I think there’s a lot of clubs over the years who have hoped that chucking money at it will bring success.

“Some teams who can’t afford that luxury have to find strengths in other areas.

“We have spent money, but not massive amounts like other clubs have.

“You have to do your homework and get the right people into the club, work hard, and hopefully that can bring you success.

“Preston have had a great season, on a similar level to us, in that they haven’t spent masses of money.

“Their budget is possibly a good deal lower than teams above them.

“There’s several teams that have done fantastic this season, without spending the money.

“Congratulations to them. And the teams near the bottom. who have spent loads of money, I am sure they will be looking at the business models of these other clubs have set.”