AHEAD of a potentially season-defining five days for Sheffield United, manager Chris Wilder insists his side can profit from all the pressure being on their promotion rivals.
Tonight the Blades host Burton Albion – managed by former Bramall Lane boss Nigel Clough –in what is the club’s game in hand on the five sides sitting directly above them in the table, and then Nottingham Forest on Saturday.
Back-to-back victories could, depending on results elsewhere, mean United spending the international break in the play-off places.
That, Wilder admits, would set his side up neatly for a tilt at claiming a second successive promotion.
“There is no getting away from the fact this is a big week for the football club,” said the 50-year-old to The Yorkshire Post.
“Two home games on the bounce where our form has generally been good and the support has been right behind us.
“All we are thinking about is getting points and being in the scrap heading into the home straight, which is what we are into now.
“That is our target, but we will only be closer in the mix if we pick up positive results in the next two games.”
Leading trio Wolverhampton Wanderers, Cardiff City and Aston Villa are all in action tonight.
But with the next five sides in the table without a game until the weekend the clash with Burton offers a huge chance to make up some of the ground lost in recent weeks via defeats to Hull City and Fulham, plus last Saturday’s draw at Ipswich Town.
Victory would nudge the Blades up to seventh and just two points behind Middlesbrough in the final play-off berth.
Boro, of course, are one of several clubs who spent big in this season’s Championship alongside the likes of Villa, Derby and Wolves. Wilder believes the pressure of having to justify such spending by clinching promotion could have an impact during the run-in.
“Pressure, yet again, shifts on to the teams that have to get out of the division,” added the Blades chief. “Every week we hear incredible reports about teams that feel they have to go up this year. There is about 10 of them.
“That means there is going to be seven unbelievably disappointed clubs, isn’t there? At least seven where heads will roll.
“I am not naming names, but we play teams who say, ‘We spent this much, we have to go up’. We are in a different situation to them.
“We are relaxed. We were last year as well even though we had to do our best to get up. The club wouldn’t have disintegrated, but I think everyone recognises another year in League One would have been disastrous for everyone connected to the club.”
Regardless of what happens in these final ten games, Wilder is rightly proud of how his side have fared following the step up from League One.
Not since Wolverhampton and Brentford, promoted together in 2014, finished seventh and fifth respectively in their first season back in the second tier has a promoted team done as well as the Blades.
In late autumn United led the division while they were in the play-off places as recently as a week ago.
“Things might have slipped a little bit because of where we were and where we are,” said Wilder when asked if his side had been given enough credit for their efforts this term.
“If it was the other way around, had we been coming into this position from 14th, 15th or 16th, it might have been different.
“But, still, with 10 games to go – and two home games on the bounce here – I think it is brilliant. People talk about how well Middlesbrough are doing. Well, we are in touching distance. It is amazing.”
A familiar face will be hoping to damage those promotion hopes tonight. Clough returns to Bramall Lane for a second time since being harshly sacked in May, 2015, just a few weeks after United’s 7-6 aggregate defeat to Swindon Town in the play-off semi-finals.
Clough triumphed on his first return almost exactly two years ago and another three points tonight could, depending on how Barnsley fare at home to Norwich City, take Burton out of the bottom three.
“If Nigel keeps them up for a second season it will definitely be up there with anything anyone else does in terms of winning the division,” said Wilder, who faced Clough in the Conference with Halifax Town and Oxford United.
“A powerhouse club will win this division – be it Aston Villa, Wolves or Cardiff City. It is not like Huddersfield last year, who went up via the play-offs.
“So, for me, pound for pound, what Nigel will have done if they do survive will be right up there.”
Last six games: Sheffield United LWLWLD Burton Albion DDWLLD.
Referee: S Duncan (Northumberland).
Last time: Sheffield United Burton Albion 1; March 1, 2016; League One.