Sheffield United face Scunthorpe United today in their “biggest game of the season” as the League One title rivals meet at Bramall Lane.
Victory for United, coupled with defeat for third-placed Bolton Wanderers at Bradford City, would leave Chris Wilder’s side eight points clear at the top of League One with just 13 games remaining.
The significance of today’s game has not been lost on anyone at Bramall Lane and there has been no attempt to mask its importance.
Wilder admits it is “not just another three points” while defender Chris Basham believes it is one of the most important games in his three-year spell as a Blade.
When you consider that includes a League Cup semi-final double-header with Tottenham Hotspur, plus the end-of-season play-offs in 2015 against Swindon Town, you can see the high regard in which United hold today’s meeting. With Bolton set to arrive at Bramall Lane next Saturday, the coming week is crucial for the Blades.
“It will definitely be one of my biggest-ever games at Bramall Lane,” said Basham. “We are top and they are second top. It’s a really tasty encounter.
“It will be one of those games where we’ll have to grind it out in one way or another.
“There’s a few good games coming up, we have had a really good couple of weeks and these are games we can look forward to and take it to them.”
So the biggest Blades game in years? Wilder responded: “Obviously this season, you can’t get away from that.
“I am not going to spin it, saying it’s just another three points, it isn’t. It’s a big game.
“Whoever comes out on top on Saturday will be feeling really good. Scunthorpe would, because of their form recently, that will give them a big lift. They will see that as a massive gain for them.
“We just want to keep driving it forward, adding to the points total. Play well, and if we can’t win, we don’t get beat.”
There will also be a noteworthy sideshow today, with the league’s top two scorers on display.
Billy Sharp has netted 20 goals for his home-town club, but Josh Morris has also impressed for the Iron, scoring 19 goals.
Both were on target in the 2-2 draw at Scunthorpe in September, a game where Basham picked up his only red card of the season.
Basham, 28, added: “They are not going to be easy. They have been top or second top all the way through.
“They’ve got danger in (Josh) Morris, who is keeping Billy (Sharp) on his toes, and have lots of experience.
“We took a point there and it looks like a good point now. They’ve hit a bit of a sticky patch and, hopefully, we can take advantage of that.”
That sticky patch has seen Scunthorpe fail to win in their last three outings, leaving them five points behind United albeit with a game in hand.
Back-to-back wins over Scunthorpe and Bolton – who have already beaten United twice this season – would be the perfect scenario for Blades and leave supporters dreaming of a Championship return.
“The position the two teams are in, it will be important,” said Basham. “We owe Bolton one after what happened there. It’s only six points, but it’s a big six points. The gaffer won’t let us take our foot off the gas.”
The Blades come into the game off a 0-0 draw with Bristol Rovers in midweek. It was not an eye-catching result, but Wilder made several changes with strike duo James Hanson (injured) and Sharp (rested) dropping out of the starting XI.
There were starts for Matt Done, Caolan Lavery, Jay O’Shea and Joe Riley – the latter two full debutants – as United battled for a point.
“I’m excited with the quality we’ve got; we made five changes at Bristol Rovers and everyone who stepped in did well,” said Basham.
“We’re really tuned in to how the gaffer and Knilly (No 2 Alan Knill) want us to play. We’re enjoying ourselves.
“We showed a lot of spirit and aggression to try and get three points or a point in a different way.
“They are really good at home and so they came into it.
“I thought if we had got a goal then we might get two or three.
“Then we had to do the nasty, gritty side. We scrambled at the end, Billy getting cut and me getting trampled on the line.
“I think that type of thing has been missing over the years. But we got that clean sheet.
“I think that showed what this team is prepared to do to get results. It didn’t quite happen, but it was a good solid performance. Everyone is revitalised.”
While the Blades and Bolton were always expected to compete for promotion this year, Scunthorpe have been the surprise package for many.
Not Wilder, though, who insists despite their lowly crowds, Scunthorpe have invested heavily in their squad and will not be under-estimated.
He said: “I don’t think it’s ‘little old Scunthorpe’. People inside football know what happens, in terms of budgets.
“They might not have 15,000 supporters, but they have a lot of things going for them. Moving into a new stadium, the chairman has heavily backed the club and brought in a lot of good players. They’ve been going at it for a year now, building things up.
“Scunthorpe have invested in players, have a lot of good players, but you don’t get them without attracting them for a reason. Usually, it’s a financial one. I think they will be extremely disappointed if they drop out of the top two come the end of the season.”