Birmingham City v Sheffield United – Promotion battle too tight to predict, says Billy Sharp

Sheffield United's Billy Sharp. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Sheffield United's Billy Sharp. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
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SHEFFIELD UNITED captain Billy Sharp, chasing a fourth promotion of his career, admits he has never experienced a race quite like the one being played out for a place in next season’s Premier League.

The Blades head to Birmingham City tonight looking to steal a march on Leeds United in the two-way Yorkshire scrap for second place.

Leaders Norwich City, who play Reading tonight, have timed their dash for the line to perfection and are now odds-on to lift the title.

But the White Rose tussle is proving much harder to call, a point underlined by possession of the second automatic promotion berth having changed hands a remarkable six times since the middle of last month.

This near constant chopping and changing at the top – until Norwich’s recent surge in form, there had been 24 changes at the Championship summit this term – has been a new experience for Sharp with his last promotion from League One in 2016-17 seeing the Blades hit the front shortly before the turn of the year and eventually finish 14 points clear of the field.

Likewise, Sharp’s promotion to the Premier League with Southampton in 2012 came at the end of a season where the south coast club had never been outside the top two.

They have got a good chance, we have got a good chance. I have said all along, ‘May the best team win’. Hopefully that is us.

Billy Sharp

“I can’t remember a promotion race swapping and changing like this one has in recent weeks,” the United top scorer told The Yorkshire Post.

“But I sensed this might happen, especially with the fixtures and teams playing after each other.

“One plays the day before or at different times on the same day. That is something we cannot control. We just train well and make sure we play well.”

Tonight completes an unusual quirk in the fixture list that has seen two promotion rivals face the same schedule in reverse.

Wilder’s Blades will be hoping to prosper where Leeds United failed last Saturday, a strike from Che Adams proving enough to clinch a 1-0 victory for Birmingham City.

Sharp has spoken to Adams, alongside whom he played for a season at Bramall Lane, since the weekend. The duo texted each other on Saturday and then met the following night at the Football League awards night, both having been named in the Championship team of the year.

Also present in the capital on Sunday were Leeds duo Liam Cooper and Kalvin Phillips. It seems, though, talk of the ongoing scrap for promotion was off the menu.

“They didn’t want to speak about football for some reason,” said Sharp with a smile. “Even though it was a football awards.

“‘Coops’ is a very good mate. He is just as professional as I am and looking forward to the challenge ahead.

“They have got a good chance, we have got a good chance. I have said all along, ‘May the best team win’. Hopefully that is us.

“There have been times in my career when things have felt good. But this season has been a little bit more special. Top end of the Championship, playing for my home-town club as captain and playing week-in, week-out.

“Hopefully we can make sure this is a memorable time to look back on.”

Once the unusual double-header for the Uniteds of Sheffield and Leeds is brought to an end tonight attention will turn to the weekend and a pair of home games for the promotion hopefuls.

The Blades host Millwall at 3pm after which lifelong fan Sharp will be in the unusual position of cheering on Steel City rivals Wednesday at Elland Road in the tea-time kick-off.

“This always looked to be a big week,” he said about both his current and past employers tackling three games in eight days. “We came off the pitch against Brentford (last month), having got an amazing three points after being down to 10 men for so long.

“It was a crucial win. That set us up nicely to go and beat Leeds (the following Saturday). That turned things a little bit with people saying, ‘Leeds have gone’.

“But we have had the same thing said about us. We have come through that and fought back. They put the pressure on us last week by beating Millwall as we lost.

“Then it turned around last weekend when we beat Preston. We just need to focus on ourselves, keep trying to perform to the standards we have done. We are confident we can get the result at Birmingham.”

Jack O’Connell remains a doubt with the calf injury that kept the central defender out at Deepdale.

Last six games: Birmingham City LLLLLW Sheffield United DWWWLW. Referee: D Bond (Lancashire). Last time: Birmingham City 2 Sheffield United 1; April 21, 2018; Championship.