ENDA STEVENS doesn’t really do quiet ends to the season.
Since arriving in English football a little under six years ago, the Irishman has won one promotion, qualified for the play-offs and also been part of two relegation fights.
The second of those was lost with Doncaster Rovers in 2015, while the two campaigns preceding his move across the Irish Sea to join Aston Villa brought back-to-back League of Ireland title successes with Shamrock Rovers.
Clearly, the 27-year-old is well versed in the unique demands of a run-in where plenty rests on the outcome – which is handy considering next spring is already shaping up to bring a concerted push for the Premier League in Sheffield United’s colours.
“Experience can be a massive help,” said the Dublin-born wingback, signed on a free transfer from Portsmouth last summer, to The Yorkshire Post. “Having gone through something before, you know what to expect.
“The lads who were here last season have that experience of what is required. I wasn’t here, of course, but I was in a promotion season at Portsmouth. There are plenty of others here as well.
“Not just last season’s squad, as Richard Stearman has gone into the Premier League (with Wolverhampton Wanderers) and Billy (Sharp) did the same (at Southampton).
“People might just see us as a League One team without much experience of this division. That is what we were branded (at the start of the season) but this changing room has a lot of Championship experience.”
That know-how and the refreshingly positive approach of manager Chris Wilder has helped the Blades to third in the table with a haul of 36 points from 18 games.
Tuesday night may have brought defeat to Fulham but there can be little doubt that United have already proved their promotion credentials.
Only Wolverhampton Wanderers, four points clear at the summit, have scored more than the 31 goals plundered by last season’s League One champions. In Leon Clarke, United also boast the second tier’s most deadly marksman with his midweek hat-rick in the 5-4 loss to Fulham having taken the striker to a dozen goals for the campaign.
Clearly, the Blades plan on sticking around in this term’s race for the Premier League and Stevens believes the squad is well equipped for the challenges that lay ahead.
“The experience of winning promotion can be huge,” said the former Republic of Ireland Under-21s international, part of the Pompey side that lifted the League Two last May to banish the frustration of losing in the play-off semi-finals 12 months earlier.
“It teaches you what is involved and how you can’t get too up or down. It is a long season. There is always something to play for, so don’t settle for anything less than a win.
“Even at Portsmouth last season, there were tough times. We had some really tough results at home. They left us needing to come together as a squad, which is what we did. We also set targets along the way – get the play-offs sorted first, then push on for automatic.
“Obviously, we won the league on the last day but that was only after achieving our earlier targets. By treating it like that, our form going into the final day was unbelievable. It gave us huge confidence.
“People might look from the outside and say this is different because Portsmouth were expected to go up last year, whereas we weren’t this time. But, in our dressing room, we were expecting to go up. We were expecting to be involved in the promotion race.”
Such steadfast belief at a time when the bookmakers were tipping Wilder’s men for a lower mid-table placing has been justified by a start that has yielded a dozen wins and six defeats.
United being one of only three teams in the entire Football League yet to draw a match this term – in fact, we have to go back to late March, 25 league outings ago, for a stalemate involving the club – hints at the bold approach that has won so many admirers over the past year or so.
This tea-time brings struggling Birmingham City to the Lane as the Blades look to bounce back from the disappointment of losing that nine-goal thriller with Fulham.
For Stevens, a former player with the Blues’ main rivals, the televised clash will be no different to any other in the Championship this term.
“I don’t think about me being an ex Villa player,” he said. “There is a massive hatred there, as we saw when the manager who signed me (one-time Blues chief Alex McLeish) was in charge.
“But I have played against Birmingham before, it doesn’t really make much difference to me.
“Unless you are actually at a club, such as when we played Sheffield Wednesday, then the rivalry is not really there.”
With second-placed Cardiff City not in action until tomorrow at Nottingham Forest, Wilder’s side have a chance to return to the automatic promotion places.
“I probably haven’t been involved in a game as crazy as that,” added Stevens when asked about dropping out of the top two in midweek.
“Things didn’t go to plan but we fought towards the end and gave it our best. It wasn’t enough but it showed our belief.
“That has been carried forward from last season. A winning mentality, that is what we have here. It is great thing to be able to say about the club.
“I also love how this is such a positive group that is so forward thinking.”