Probably for the first time since 1959, both Sheffield clubs have genuine promotion aspirations from the second tier going into a pivotal Easter: United are deep into a three-way battle for the top two, and Wednesday are in an eight-horse race for two play-off spots.
Chris Wilder’s United go into the final eight games in second – a point ahead of Leeds United and four behind Norwich City. Since blowing a 3-0 lead at Aston Villa, the Blades have won six and drawn one without conceding. They’ve shown their ability to steamroll teams with the 4-0 demolition of Reading, and a capacity to grind out results. The ten men did that in the last match at Bramall Lane against Brentford (a 2-0 victory), and the 1-0 triumph at Elland Road before the international break could prove crucial.
What Wilder has done in less than three years defies description. Through astute man management and careful recruitment, he has taken a club who lumbered to 11th in League One in 2016 to the brink of the Premier League. For all Marcelo Bielsa’s undoubted tactical brilliance at Leeds, it is Wilder’s 3-4-1-2 formation – as well as his players’ willingness to give everything for the club and the manager – which currently holds the advantage. The licence of the two outside centre-backs to overlap the two wing-backs has rarely been seen to this extent English football – but it is working a treat.
Beginning on Saturday at home to Bristol City, United have eight hurdles to clear. Norwich on paper have the easiest run-in, while only a fool would write-off Bielsa and Leeds, but in S2, they’re starting to dream.
The turnaround at Hillsborough under Steve Bruce has arguably been just as big a story. When Jos Luhukay left in December, Wednesday were 18th, just five points above the relegation zone. Successive caretaker management teams steadied the ship, but Bruce’s five victories and five draws mean he remains unbeaten since taking charge. The Owls are now just two points behind 6th placed Villa and only three behind Middlesbrough.
Most had expected Bruce’s task to be a rebuilding job to get the club back to the top flight, but the manager has consistently said that his team can gatecrash the play-offs this season – and it’s time to start taking those claims seriously.
Goalkeeper Keiren Westwood has started every Championship game since Luhukay’s departure and Wednesday look a more secure outfit for it. January signings Dominic Iorfa and Rolando Aarons have proved real successes, and Steven Fletcher is revitalised with five goals already under Bruce.
Wednesday travel to Stoke City on Saturday, before six fixtures in April all against fellow promotion hopefuls. The likes of Villa and Preston North End are in great form, but Bruce has breathed new life into a campaign which had gone badly off-piste.
The Championship can be uniquely unpredictable, but if United and/or Wednesday get back to the big time, there’s going to be a party bigger than anything you’ve witnessed to date in Sheffield.