THURSDAY POLL: Clough refuses to rule out late play-off surge

Sheffield United manager Nigel Clough. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe.
Sheffield United manager Nigel Clough. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe.
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NIGEL CLOUGH insists Sheffield United have not given up hope of turning a special second-half of 2013-14 into a truly vintage one – with promotion back to the Championship.

The Blades celebrate their 125th anniversary at home to League One leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday, and after making history by recently reaching the FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley for the first time since 1993, manager Clough is not yet ruling out a crack at further glory at the home of football in late May.

As it stands, the tenth-placed Blades are 10 points behind the side occupying the final play-off position in Peterborough United, but with a game in hand.

While gatecrashing the top-six represents a tall order for Clough’s side, he feels the task is not yet an insurmountable one, with the Blades having been re-energised by a turbo-charged run which has seen them go unbeaten in their past 11 matches in all competitions.

A club record 11th straight victory in league and cup was halted in a televised 0-0 draw at Preston on Monday night.

But with the Blades having taken 22 points from the last 24 available in the league since losing 3-0 at Crewe Alexandra on February 1 – to move from second-from-bottom in the table to the top 10 – Clough is refusing to throw in the play-off towel.

Clough, hoping to crown March 22 – the date the club was formed way back in 1889 – with a magnificent seventh successive home victory to take the Blades past the half-century mark of seasonal points, said: “We are not going to dismiss it (play-offs) yet.

“We wish we had another half a dozen games in the season – although not in the next six weeks.

“If we had another half a dozen, you might just fancy us a bit more and we might just run out of time.

“But you never know.

“I think in the next seven days a lot will become a bit clearer. We have got Wolves and then Crawley and Swindon away, while Peterborough have got Rotherham and Preston and if we win a couple and they lose a couple, all of a sudden it changes.

“The top five are guaranteed and there’s only really that sixth spot.

“If you had offered us fifth from bottom on goal difference after the Crewe game, we’d have taken it. Now all of a sudden, we are tenth in the league and not so far off the top six. I don’t think we underestimate what has happened.

“We were looking to the end of April to get to that 50-point mark and here we are in mid-March with a good opportunity to do it. That’s another good incentive for us on Saturday.”

While the Blades were denied their 11th consecutive victory at the start of the week in Lancashire to end their thrilling win sequence, one record remains very much intact.

Namely the number of league games without conceding a league goal, which was extended to eight at Deepdale, the best run in the club’s 125-year history.

This arrived after they had previously equalled the record set at seven by John Harris’s Division One promotion class of 1970-71 in last Wednesday’s 1-0 success over Carlisle United, with the Blades now in possession of that record on their own.

You have to go back to February 1 when Byron Moore netted Crewe’s third goal in stoppage-time at the Alexandra Stadium for the last occasion a League One player breached the United rearguard – 12 hours ago.

On the Blades’ mean streak, Clough – eager for those miserly defensive statistics to continue – said: “The goalkeeper and the two centre-halves especially were chuffed when we found out we had got that eighth consecutive clean sheet and it was a record.

“The mascot came in the other day (at Preston) with his mum and said you are going to win 3-2. And Mark Howard said ‘I’m not going to concede two goals!’ It means a lot to players.

“I don’t think we can ask any more of the players in terms of what they have put in during the past few months. Gary Crosby has worked it out that in the last 25 games since the defeat at home to Gillingham, that the team have lost three matches.

“It’s nearly half a season of league and cup games and to lose three matches in that time after being in a position where we were in the bottom few is a remarkable achievement.

“The players deserve an awful lot of credit.”

Clough is adamant that whatever happens for the rest of the season that United have made 2013-14 a campaign to savour, having fulfilled the requirements of making their 125th anniversary year a special one.

That said, it won’t stop them attempting to write a few more joyous chapters yet with an all-Yorkshire FA Cup semi-final against Hull City in the offing at Wembley on April 13, and the prospect of a final appearance on May 17 – and the faint possibility still of a play-off final spot eight days later on May 25, if things go their way.

He added: “Having 10 straight wins and breaking the record on Monday night and getting eight successive league clean sheets for the first time in 125 years is great and we’re looking forward to the semi-finals.

“So in lots of ways, it’s been fulfilled and we can take things one step further.”