NEIL WARNOCK last night likened promotion-chasing Cardiff City side to the Sheffield United side he took into the Premier League 12 years ago.
The 69-year-old is back at Bramall Lane tonight for a key encounter with the club he has supported since boyhood.
With nearest rivals Aston Villa and Fulham not playing until tomorrow, the Bluebirds can move 10 points clear in the race for second place with victory over a Blades side also desperate for a victory to keep their own play-off hopes on track.
“We have surprised ourselves as much as anyone,” Warnock, chasing a record-breaking eighth promotion, told The Yorkshire Post.
“We set a target to be in the top eight at Christmas and then try to push on from there, hopefully to get in the play-offs.
“But this group is a special one and they have just kept going. Even when we lost four on the bounce at Christmas, they bounced back.
“In many ways, this Cardiff team reminds me of Sheffield United when we went up. A great group, full of characters who never give up.
“At Sheffield United, we had Chris Morgan and Phil Jagielka whereas here we have Sean Morrison and Sol Bamba. Off the field, they are a strong group as well and I love it when that happens.”
In a Championship that saw a host of clubs spend big last summer, neither Cardiff nor the newly-promoted Blades were expected to challenge. This much is reflected in the bookmakers pricing the pair at 25-1 to win the Championship in a field led by Villa, Fulham and Middlesbrough.
For the Bluebirds, therefore, to be seven points clear of the chasing pack with a game in hand is remarkable. Warnock believes his former club, led by Chris Wilder, also deserve credit for upsetting the odds.
“Cardiff and Sheffield United are, no matter what happens now, the two teams who have punched above their weight all season,” he added.
“We are in the same mould. Like us, no-one expected United to be up there at this stage. Before the season, I admit that I did think two or three Yorkshire clubs would be in the top eight but Sheffield United were not one of them.
“But here we both are, definitely in with a chance. What has surprised me most about Sheffield United is how they play. I didn’t expect it to be as good as it has been.
“I have watched them on TV a few times and it has been cracking football. Really enjoyable stuff to watch. Chris deserves a lot of credit for that.
In many ways, this Cardiff team reminds me of Sheffield United when we went up. A great group, full of characters who never give up.Cardiff City manager, Neil Warnock
“We played Sheffield United early in the season (Cardiff won 2-0 in the opening week) and they hadn’t got going yet. Chris has admitted that.
“But they went on to adapt really well to the division. Even when they have lost, it has often been the opposition goalkeeper having a great game or just bad luck on their own part.”
Tonight’s game at the Lane is the first of three consecutive games involving Cardiff to be shown live on Sky. Their home match with Nottingham Forest on April 21 has also been selected by the broadcaster, who also must be eyeing the following weekend’s trip to Hull City for Warnock’s men.
“I am looking forward to going back to Sheffield,” added Warnock. “We have got some tough games, especially away from home. This is one of them. Bramall Lane is bouncing again, Chris has made that happen.
“Promotion and then the way they have played this season has made it a good place to be again. We will have to be at our best to get the result we need.
“What we have to do is just keep treating it in a relaxed way. I have said that to the players and the owner. If we don’t get automatic, then there will be the play-offs.
“And if we then don’t go up in the play-offs, we can have another go next season in the Championship. That has to be how we treat the next few weeks. Getting uptight about things does no-one any favours.”
Last six games: Sheffield United WLDWDD, Cardiff City WWWWWW.
Referee: M Oliver (Northumberland).
Last time: Sheffield United 0 Cardiff City 2; April 12, 2011; Championship.