CAPTAIN Billy Sharp believes Sheffield United have to learn how to handle the pressures of being League One leaders if they want to be crowned champions.
The Blades won six consecutive games to overhaul Scunthorpe United and go top of League One, creating a four-point cushion after a 4-2 win at Southend United on January 7.
But the hunters then became the hunted, and United collected just one point from their next three outings – conceding eight goals, including in defeats to Walsall and Fleetwood – to allow Scunthorpe to regain top spot.
United, who trail Scunthorpe by a point, but have played a game more, welcome AFC Wimbledon to Bramall Lane today.
Sharp believes United – who had a blank weekend last week due to the FA Cup – may have started looking over their shoulders at the chasing pack, rather than focus 100 per cent on their own performances.
“We have lost top spot, but now it’s Scunthorpe’s pressure, let’s see how they deal with it,” Sharp told The Yorkshire Post.
“We can concentrate on ourselves rather than worry about other people. I think that’s what we need to get back to.
“We were at our best when we just went out and focused on ourselves, let the rest take care of itself.
“You go out wanting to win to stay top, it doesn’t matter what other people do.
“But obviously, when you don’t get the results you want, you do automatically look at other results.
“At the weekend, we lost top spot, but no one made any ground on us from the chasing pack.
“So it was a good weekend without playing a game.
“But we are at our best when we do focus on ourselves, and we need to get back to that.
“We want to go up as champions, we are in a good position, so we have a good chance of doing that.
“But the main thing is promotion. There is a little bit of a gap (to third), but we need to start winning games.”
The advantage over third-placed Bolton Wanderers is seven points, although the Lancashire side have two games in hand.
United have bolstered their squad during the January transfer window, the latest recruits being Bradford City striker James Hanson and Chesterfield midfielder Jay O’Shea.
Having had an 11-day break between games has meant the recent signings have had time to work on the training ground with their new team-mates.
Blades striker Sharp said: “We’ve had a lot of time to reflect on a couple of bad results, in our eyes. We have been trying to put it right on the training ground and just looking forward to the next game.
“During the transfer window, we had players coming in and out, so we know what we have until the end of the season.
“The lads that have come on board have strengthened the squad, and settled in really well.
“They have done well in training and will give the gaffer a selection headache, but we need that.
“We have had two or three results we didn’t want and we need to get back on track quickly.
“I think we have strengthened in the right areas, I think the gaffer is really pleased. It was nice to do it with three days to go so we weren’t panicking on the last day.
“We have our players in now and I feel we have enough to achieve something.”
Both Hanson and O’Shea have impressed Sharp during training.
“He’s a tough striker to play against, a handful, and I am just glad he’s on our side,” Sharp said of Hanson. “He’s going to be brilliant at both ends of the pitch, and I believe he will be a leader.
“We have probably lacked a few leaders on the pitch in the last few games, when it hasn’t been going quite right.
“Everybody knows that, we have highlighted that, and we need to make sure everyone comes out of themselves and helps each other out.”
On O’Shea, he added: “He’s looked really sharp in training, and will only strengthen the squad.
“He’s a very attacking player, and for me was Chesterfield’s best player.”
Hanson’s arrival means the Blades now have a rich pool of strikers, including Marc McNulty, Leon Clarke, Matt Done and Caolan Lavery.
They are all battling to partner top scorer Sharp – who has 18 goals this term – but the Sheffield-born player is refusing to take his place for granted.
“I have got to keep performing as well, we now have a lot of strikers who want to play,” he said.
“Whoever plays, they have to score goals, the gaffer has said that.”
Sharp turns 31 tomorrow, and already knows what he wants as a birthday gift.
“I’d like a couple of goals and a win, that would be the perfect present,” he smiled.
“I would like a couple of goals on Saturday, take me to 20, then just go again and get as many goals as I can.
“That’s on a personal note, but if I don’t score on Saturday and we win, I will be delighted because I will be 31 the next day.”
Dave Bassett – the former Wimbledon and Blades manager – will be in the Bramall Lane crowd today.
Blades boss Chris Wilder rates Bassett as “the best manager this club has ever had”.
Bassett spent seven years at United, between 1988 and 1995, and brought Premier League football to Bramall Lane.
Wilder said: “He’ll be there on Saturday and hopefully his allegience is with us.
“If not, I think a few of our punters will be on his back. He’s so highly respected.”