TOP of the Championship in mid-November and still occupying a place in the play-off spots a couple of months ago, Sheffield United’s promotion hopes now seem to be at an end.
Three points may be the margin that separates the Blades from Millwall in sixth place, but such is the concertinaed nature of the table immediately below the London club that the chances of Chris Wilder’s men bulldozing their way through the field are slim.
Even signing off with back-to-back wins over Preston North End and Bristol City, two of the four clubs separating United from Millwall, is unlikely to be enough and the United players know it.
That much was clear from the pained expressions etched on the faces of the visitors when trudging from the field after losing to Birmingham City.
“We put ourselves in an unbelievable position to get promoted,” said Mark Duffy, who had given United an early lead at St Andrew’s, about a season that promised so much just a few weeks ago.
“But we have let that slip. It is not down to anyone but ourselves. I would say this is possibly the lowest moment of the season because of what it meant, really.
“With Millwall losing on Friday night (to Fulham), a win would have put us in a brilliant position. But the truth is we didn’t deserve the three points.
“Hopefully we can still make the play-offs. But if not we will be sitting somewhere watching the play-offs and thinking, ‘How are they there and we aren’t?’
“In 80 per cent of the games played we have been the dominant team. Silly mistakes at crucial times have cost us.
“Birmingham was exactly the same. If we could have got to 1-0 at half-time then they would have had to come out and throw caution to the wind. That would have allowed us to pick them off on the counter-attack, like all the top teams do.
It is not down to anyone but ourselves. I would say this is possibly the lowest moment of the season because of what it meant, really.Mark Duffy
“But we didn’t do that. They scuffed a corner that missed the first man and bobbled across the box to be tapped in. We don’t ever get given goals like that. We have to work for ours. It was so disappointing.”
Defeat to the Blues, a result that has gone a long way to keeping Garry Monk’s team in the Championship, means the Blades have taken 10 points from as many games since March dawned with Wilder’s men still occupying a play-off place.
Just a solitary extra win during that run could have made all the difference, a point lost on no one sporting red and white in the West Midlands.
“Teams have not been cutting us open,” added Duffy. “Okay, there have been a few games, such as Wolves and Fulham, where you hold your hands up (at losing to the better team).
“But the majority of the other defeats have been us making mistakes. That makes it even worse. I look at the table and the teams above us and we have played the majority of those off the park.
“We are an honest group and know it is not good enough. The gaffer had a go at us (after Birmingham) and rightly so. To give them a goal and lift when they were losing 1-0 was criminal.”
Marc Roberts, a former Barnsley and FC Halifax Town defender, was the beneficiary of United’s most recent instance of defensive largesse.
A scuffed corner by Jacques Maghoma just after the half-hour mark should have been easily dealt with by the Blades.
Instead the ball was allowed to bounce a couple of times before reaching the unmarked Roberts, who was left with the simple task of sidefooting into the empty net from a yard or so out.
It was a poor mistake that negated all the promising early work put in by Wilder’s men. Duffy had opened the scoring on six minutes, the former Blues man latching on to a fine pass from Lee Evans before beating David Stockdale at his near post.
The Leeds-born goalkeeper was at fault for that opener, but he made amends a couple of minutes later by acrobatically tipping over a 25-yard effort from Evans.
Another couple of chances for United then came and went before the end of the first quarter, as Duffy’s cross was cut out by a scrambling City defence and then George Baldock’s floated pass just evaded the onrushing John Fleck.
With Birmingham offering little in the way of attacking threat at that stage and United heading to seventh in the table all seemed well.
Then, though, came an equaliser from Roberts that, together with scores elsewhere, saw Wilder’s men suddenly plunge to 11th.
Worse still, the Blades had lost their way on the pitch as Jota and Maghoma started to exert more and more influence on proceedings.
Craig Gardner’s introduction from the bench then brought the added impetus and quality that eventually won the game, the substitute’s link-up play with Che Adams releasing Maghoma 20 minutes from time.
With the Blades’ backline horribly out of position, the former Sheffield Wednesday winger raced clear before making light work of beating Jamal Blackman.
Once behind, the Yorkshire side rarely looked like ending Monk’s superiority over Sheffield opposition.
Including his stint at Leeds United last season, the Blues manager has won all five Championship meetings against either United or Wednesday.
It is a proud record that Monk will have the chance to extend next term via another four cracks at the Steel City duo after effectively ending United’s promotion hopes.