By Matt Rowson
It's not progress that's important, not really.
After all, were that the case there'd be an awful lot larger a proportion of disquieted football fans around than there already are. The laws of mathematics dictate that for every side doing well there's a side doing badly. It may be that via some terribly clever contortion it would be possible to arrange the division such that, for example, Chelsea finishing bottom next season in the Premiership would permit every other club to make some modest modicum of progress at their overall expense, but that ain't gonna happen and the premise kinda misses the point.
It's the illusion of progress that's important, more important than the reality perhaps. It's not as if supporters have ever needed much convincing that their side is on the verge of greatness, so all that's needed is enough weight to the argument, enough convincing wins to dismiss the games when you didn't quite get the result you were after.
The other side of the coin, of course, is provided by the fact that a supporter's perspective rarely acknowledges what is in fact quite a broad grey area between excellent and awful. So once the illusion of progress is no longer maintained, once supporters can no longer convince themselves that progress is being made, the tone will change fairly rapidly.
So it is that much as we might envy Sheffield United's eighth place, particularly bearing in mind that we held our own in two encounters with the Blades at Bramall Lane earlier in the season, you do have to sympathise with the element of the support who've kinda had enough of the there-or-thereabouts thing. United have been good-but-not-quite-good-enough for much of the ten and a bit seasons they've spent in the division since relegation from the Premiership in 1994; indeed, following Friday's catastrophic defeat to Derby County, United look set to make it nine seasons out of eleven in the top ten in the Division without promotion. Supporters' credentials or no, Colin now appears to have a sizeable proportion of the Bramall Lane crowd grumbling under their breath - and the "we're still in with a shout" defiance on the official site isn't mirrored on the messageboards, where the possibility barely merits discussion.
Paddy Kenny will, as ever, be in goal for United, Phil Barnes seemingly an emergency backup rather than a deputy rarely even makes the bench.
In defence, the loan-release of Danny Cullip to Vicarage Road, ineligible for this fixture, leaves Chris Morgan as the undisputed shouty leader at the back although the limits to his game - notably his lack of pace - have been exposed in recent weeks. Leigh Bromby, formerly of Sheffield Wednesday, seems to be regarded as the best central defender at the club; Phil Jagielka is another option, although he was employed in midfield last weekend.
Another ex-Wednesday man, Derek Geary, played right back against Derby but his early form has disappeared and Blades will be hoping that groin strain victim Rob Kozluk passes a fitness test. Simon Francis, ex- of Bradford City, is another option on the right. Jon Harley is another who is off form, the left back; the versatile Geary aside, Alan Wright is the most obvious alternative in the squad but hasn't featured since January.
In midfield, the abrasive Alan Quinn is the one individual who has the locals convinced. Nick Montgomery remains the target of most abuse, although Andy Liddell on the right seems to have run out of steam since impressing earlier in the season. Michael Tonge is another who could feature; he faces a test on an ankle injury, whilst fetcher and carrier Paul Thirlwell was on the bench last weekend.
Sheffield United have an army of strikers of whom the current main man, our own Danny Webber, is ineligible at the weekend. Steve Kabba, taking a rare break between injuries, is the most likely to replace him alongside Andy Gray, the only reliable physical option available up front. The bench is likely to include another loanee, David Johnson of Nottingham Forest, and youngster Jonathan Forte. Other strikers on United's books include Danny Cadamarteri, Tommy Johnson (!), Paul Shaw, Chinese international Hao Haidong and the man who keeps Britain's sunbed industry going, Ashley Ward. Additionally, Luke Beckett is on loan at Oldham, as is Billy Sharp at Rushden; the latter got a hat-trick at the weekend.
The likelihood is that we need another win to be certain of staying up. Whilst the victory at Rotherham won't really have convinced many that any of our three remaining fixtures look any stronger candidates to provide this win, Saturday probably is the best bet, particularly if the United players, like the supporters, have given up the ghost. A non-performance on a par with Reading's dejected effort at the end of last season would do nicely.