Reading v Sheffield United: Time for straight-talking Blades to start delivering
Of the three sides relegated from last season’s Premier League, two are competing with Bournemouth for automatic promotion, as one might expect given how much parachute payments are skewing the Championship in a pandemic.
The Blades are bucking the trend, looking as if theirs is full of holes. Punctured confidence after a demoralising relegation and an insufficient spring clean afterwards is probably a bigger factor.
They travel to Reading this evening 17th in the Championship, a slow start in danger of becoming more. They are nearer the relegation zone – five points clear – than the final play-off spot, eight off Huddersfield Town.
Some clubs would be in full spin-doctor mode right now, trying to paint a rosier picture and throwing out excuses. The Blades are not built like that and although manager Slavisa Jokanovic is fairly new to the club, neither is he.
The squad that went from League One to the Premier League was famous for brutal honesty, the players and then-manager Chris Wilder revelling in the role of straight-talking Yorkshiremen, even those without White Rose passports.
Many of that group are still at Bramall Lane - perhaps too many, given how contagious a losing mentality can be - but it ensures there is still no ducking the issue. It is noticeable that increasingly the players wheeled out to speak to the media are the old guard, leaders like Enda Stevens unafraid to voice home truths.
Whatever else the Blades are in, they will not be in denial as long as players like the Republic of Ireland left-back is a loud dressing-room voice.
“We need to be better as a team,” he says. “We need to improve each other, stick with it, not let our disappointments show on the pitch and just be together.
“As much as it’s results, it’s performances as well. We need to play better for longer periods. The players have to take responsibility. It’s us at the end of the day.
“The manager can do everything he can but we’ve got to get out there and show it. We haven’t done that so far this season. It’s not for the want of trying, we need to be more confident, probably stick our chests out a bit more and accept responsibility.”
It all sounds very reminiscent of what captain Billy Sharp said from behind the same desk four days earlier. They are not words reserved for the media, either.
“We’ve got to demand from each other,” insists Stevens, who joined on the back of promotion from League One in 2017.
“It’s never personal, it’s never anything to take home, it’s just the lads wanting the best for each other and expecting the highest performance from each other.
“Everyone knows that in the dressing room. Everyone can see it, the fans can, we just need to build some sort of momentum.”
There are no pleas for fans to get onside or stick with it. The Bramall Lane crowd has shown great loyalty to a team in the doldrums since finishing ninth in the Premier League in the summer of 2020, but Stevens is not stupid. He knows it is only actions, not words, will keep them onside.
“Fans are entitled to their opinions and if they’re not happy, they’re going to voice them,” he reasons. “It’s down to the players to change that. We have to come together as a squad to lift the spirits and lift the whole stadium. That’s what we’re trying to do.
“I’ve been here through the good and the bad last season. We need to get back to the feel-good factor and I know the fans will want it. They’re still showing up in their numbers for the home games, which is incredible. We just need to give them something to stick with us.”
Stevens has no desire to dwell in the past, although it shows that in the Football League, where the play-offs dangle a carrot to most teams deep into the winter, you cannot throw the towel in early.
“We’ve got to stay confident, we’ve got to look forward,” says Stevens. “It’s not going to help us if we keep looking at the past. There is plenty of football to be played, we’re coming up to the busiest period of the season and there’s plenty of points to be had.”
Jokanovic expects goalkeeper Robin Olsen to be out for “one or two weeks” with the intercostal injury picked up on international duty. George Baldock is still missing, and Lys Mousset is not expected back in training until the end of the week.
Even so, there is more than enough ability left to be higher in the table and to listen to the players, the necessary attitude as well. If talking a good game was all there was to it, the Blades would be the strong promotion contenders they believe they ought to be. It is high time they started showing it and they know it.
Last six games: Reading DWLLLL; Sheffield United DLDLWL
Referee: A Davies (Hampshire)
Last time: Reading 1 Sheffield United 2 AET, March 3, 2020, FA Cup quarter-final