Could there be Wilder times ahead for the sharp Blades?

While many a football puritan will believe that Bournemouth’s rise from the depths of League Two to the top-flight is the Premier League’s greatest fairytale, the story of the season has to be Sheffield United’s return, after 13 years away. Under experienced manager Chris Wilder, the Blades have fared better than the pre-season odds on Premier League relegation had suggested. Not only are they miles away from the drop-zone, currently sitting sixth in the table, but they have dreams of grandeur and a European tour.

Wilder’s managerial career to date has harvested much success. He took Oxford United from a Non-League to a Football League outfit, via the play-offs in 2010, before guiding Northampton Town to the top of League Two in 2015-16. Since joining the Bramall Lane club, he masterminded both promotions, from League One to the Championship in 2016-17 as winners, before last season’s runner-up finish in English football’s second tier. But never in his wildest dreams did he envisage taking Sheffield United to the dizzy heights of the Premier League’s upper echelons, with the dream of European football very much alive.

With Champions League football the reward for those finishing in the top four, but news of Manchester City’s ban from all UEFA club competitions for the next two campaigns – subject to appeal – the club finishing in sixth could well be handed a Europa League lifeline. As things stand, the Blades will be the recipients of such a reward, but the table is tight. Wilder’s side are a point behind Tottenham Hotspur in fifth, with Manchester United one point behind them in seventh. Wolverhampton Wanderers and Everton are a further two points behind, while Arsenal currently complete the top 10 and have work to do.

One of the main reasons for the Sheffield club’s success over the last two campaigns is the dominance of Dean Henderson between the sticks. The goalkeeper, on-loan from Old Trafford, was influential last season, featuring in all 46 Championship games and in keeping 21 clean sheets, he was awarded the division’s Golden Glove. Alongside Middlesbrough, the Blades conceded the fewest goals.

As things stand in the Premier League this season, Sheffield United have let in 24 goals and the only club to concede fewer are Liverpool. In fact, Henderson sits behind Alisson when it comes to clean sheets, with the Brazilian notching 10 and United’s shot-stopper tied with Nick Pope of Burnley, and Leicester City’s Kasper Schmeichel, all with nine to their names.

Despite this strength at the back, they say attack is the best form of defence and this couldn’t have been truer last season, as United ended the season amongst the most fruitful in front of goal. They were reliant on their talisman striker Billy Sharp, who contributed 24 in the league, while David McGoldrick chipped in with 15. This season, they’ve not been as free-scoring and are one of the lowest goal scorers in the Premier League with 28 goals. But rather than relying on one striker, goals have been coming from all areas of the pitch. Midfielder John Fleck joins French forward Lys Mousset on five goals each, while Oli McBurnie has contributed four.

While Blades’ fans are licking their lips at a prospective European tour, Wilder’s staying grounded and he previously said: “Europe is not something we’re thinking about,” before adding: “Europe? It might be the end-of-season trip to Magaluf again.”

With fewer and fewer matches left to play, the bookies’ odds-on favourite for relegation look set to not only defy the odds but keep the good times rolling for the red-and-white side of South Yorkshire.