Simonsen lays down gauntlet to Blades defence

SHEFFIELD United goalkeeper Steve Simonsen thinks nine more clean sheets will secure the club’s return to the Championship.

The Blades have kept 11 clean sheets in the league so sar this season and are aiming for a third in a row this afternoon against leaders Charlton Athletic.

Just as strikers take pride in finding the net, goalkeepers enjoy keeping them out.

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And Simonsen has revealed that he regards 20 ‘shut-outs’ a season as a passport to promotion.

“I don’t set targets but if you can keep 20 clean sheets in a season you’re not going to be too far away,” he admitted. “To be fair, I have not had an awful lot to do in some games this season – and that’s all down to the lads in front of me.

“What I have had to do, I have managed to do but I’ve not been over-worked. We defend from the front and we have done it really well. Last week at Bury was one of the quietest games I have had all season.”

Only 12 months ago, the Blades were shipping goals with frightening regularity which inevitably resulted in relegation to League One.

This time around, however, it has been a vastly different story and the Blades can move within just a point of Charlton if they win this afternoon at the Valley.

“Last season was difficult for everybody,” said Simonsen. “We had a lot of injuries so there was a lot of chopping and changing. This season we have been able to keep a settled team and that has been one of the keys to this season.

“The back four has played nearly every single game together and we didn’t have that luxury last season.

“We have got a really good understanding of each other and people are working hard for each other on and off the ball.”

Although Simonsen was dropped briefly at one stage this season, he has been part of a regular ‘back five’ made up by centrebacks Neill Collins and Harry Maguire and full-backs Matt Lowton abd Lecsinel Jean-Francois

The former Everton and Stoke City goalkeeper insists that confidence is sky high ahead of today’s top-of-the-table clash and is determined to finish the season with a champion’s medal.

“We believe we have the best players in this league. We believe each and everyone of us is, hopefully, come the end of the season, the best team in the division,” he said. “It’s fantastic to be second at the moment but top spot would be even better.

“If we can go to Charlton and keep another clean sheet, we would expect to win the game,” he said. “We must be averaging two- and-a-half to three goals a game which is fantastic. The way we have been playing over the last six to eight weeks, we feel as though no-one can stop us.”

Charlton’s victory over Sheffield Wednesday seven days ago cemented their grip on first place in the table and Simonsen says it will be unusual for the Blades not to start a game as bookies’ favourites.

“They are the strongest team in the division at the moment which is why they are top of the league,” he said. “It will be a bit different for us to go down and not be favourites but they have been up there from the word go and have a solid squad.

“I wouldn’t say they were the best footballing side in this division but you don’t always have to play silky football to get results. We didn’t think they played an awful lot of football in the first game against us this season but they are well organised and have been grinding out results.”

The Blades, who suffered a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Charlton at Bramall Lane in October, meet four of their top 10 rivals in the next six games. Although the next two are against Colchester United and Wycombe Wanderers, they are followed by back-to-back fixtures against Huddersfield Town, Preston North End and Sheffield Wednesday.

“We have looked at this period of fixtures and, on paper, it is probably one of the most difficult set we have had all season,” admitted Simonsen. “But nothing scares us at the moment and we are looking forward to every single game.

“In my opinion, there are three or four sides who are a cut above everyone else in the league. Everybody else will be looking at this result to see if their hopes are still alive of getting into the top two or if Charlton have pushed on a little bit further.

“We hope that the result opens up the division and we have a chance of getting that top spot.” he said. “It’s an important match but it won’t determine what happens at the end of the season. If we don’t win it, we will take it on the chin and move on – we are not going top over-hype the game. They are all going to be big between now and the end of the season howeverm it would be nice to go down there, pick up three points, and close the gap.”

Striker James Beattie, meanwhile, held talks yesterday with the Blades over the possibility of extending his deal to the end of the season.

The former England international has been on reduced terms since agreeing to return to Bramall Lane at the start of last month but has yet to start a game.

Manager Danny Wilson admitted that it was now down to Beattie whether he wanted to stay but had nothing but praise for his attitude and application during the last few weeks.