Sheffield United's mentality monsters making the difference in Championship promotion race

In their forward line alone, Watford have some serious talent

Ismaila Sarr is a Premier League player who seems to have got trapped in the Championship; Keinan Davis is one of the best centre-forwards in the second tier. Joao Pedro and Ken Sema were signed as Premier League players.

There are quite a few such squads in the Championship.

Sheffield United have their fair share of good players too – Iliman Ndiaye, Oli McBurnie, John Egan and Jayden Bogle showed that on Saturday – but not so many you could picture them in the top division without needing significant work in the transfer market.

DECISIVE MOMENT: Sheffield United player celebrate Ryan Porteous' own goalDECISIVE MOMENT: Sheffield United player celebrate Ryan Porteous' own goal
DECISIVE MOMENT: Sheffield United player celebrate Ryan Porteous' own goal
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Yet even in February you can say with reasonable confidence that is where they are heading. They sit 14 points above Watford, once more seven clear of the play-off places with a game in hand in both cases.

What sets them apart is not talent, it is mentality.

"I think so, I think we've got that," said manager Paul Heckingbottom shortly after a 1-0 win over Watford which was combined with third-placed Middlesbrough's slip-up at West Bromwich Albion. "You can see it in the group and how we train."

All that separated the Blades from Watford on Saturday was a Ryan Porteous own goal.

On the back of their longest losing streak of the Championship campaign – only two games, mind – Heckingbottom's team just had to steady the ship. Steady is exactly what they are.

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Talent sets up promotion races but psychology often decides them.

Teams can be trundling along serenely, as the Blades were until recently, but the enormity of what is at stake – transformative amounts of money and the chance to play in the most entertaining, most hyped league in the world – can turn setbacks into full-blown crises.

The Blades are the Championship equivalent of the old toy weebles –they can wobble but do not fall over.

They should have done so by now, under a transfer embargo which weakened their squad in January, up for what looks a panicky sale given the riches on the horizon. The process is hardly inspiring confidence.

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"With the stuff we don't talk about, the stuff off the pitch which could potentially be a distraction, that's when the mentality of the group should be praised and really understood," added Heckingbottom.

"I don't want anything to take away from the football and our preparation but it's a credit to everyone that it's not been a distraction."

Heckingbottom comes across as very calm in press conferences although he admits: "I'm bordering, simmering." His frustration with Championship refereeing bubbled to the surface when he petulantly kicked a fourth official's board in defeat to Boro, but he seems to have quickly regained his composure.

There was plenty to test the nerves on Saturday. As manager Slaven Bilic put it, Watford lacked "penetration" but the threat always lurked.

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They might have had an early penalty when Max Lowe barged Davis, should have scored when Davis headed a free-kick wide and had it not been defender Mario Gaspar on the end of an earlier volley, might have done then too.

The game finished with an almighty goalmouth scramble at the Blades’ end as goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann came up for a corner.

Neither side managed a first-half shot on target but there was more energy and cutting edge about the Blades after the break.

A deflection made Bogle's 48th-minute shot routine, but at least Bachmann had to use his gloves. His save from Oliver Norwood’s 55th-minute free-kick was more taxing.

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Bogle had a shot blocked after a backheeled one-two with Oli McBurnie oozing confidence, not fear, but the Blades needed Egan’s wonderful block on Sarr’s strike and for a James Morris cross to bounce off rather than be redirected by Davis.

It was Porteous on the scoresheet but McBurnie, nursing a dislocated finger, who broke the deadlock.

His pass for Sander Berge was gorgeous but in waiting for a clear sight of net, the angle allowed Bachmann to bundle the ball behind.

The corner went deep to McBurnie who turned it back in for Porteous to put past his own goalkeeper. That left more than 20 minutes for the Blades to hold out or add to their lead, and the fact they were largely uneventful was credit to them.

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This is by no means a faultless team but they are tough cookies. It is likely to make the difference.

Sheffield United: Foderingham; Ahmedhodzic, Egan, Robinson; Bogle, Berge, Norwood, Fleck (Doyle 61), Lowe (Osborn 61); Ndiaye (Jebbison 90), McBurnie (Sharp 79). Unused substitutes: Davies, Basham, McAtee

Watford: Bachmann; M Gaspar, Porteous, Hoedt, Morris; Choudhury, Louza (Kone 59); Sarr, Joao Pedro, Sema (Assombalonga 78); Davis (Araujo 81). Unused substitutes: Cathcart, Bacuna, Kabasele, Okoye.

Referee: K Stroud (Hampshire).