Highly-rated young prospect Harry Maguire.

by Kieran Mather

With last season concluding with disappointment under the Wembley arch Sheffield United fans could be forgiven for being a tad pessimistic as the 2012/13 season approaches. Last season’s highs included a team playing excellent football, a striker netting over 30 goals, an extensive unbeaten run and 90 points. These were matched with lows such as losing our top scorer to her majesties pleasure, being beaten to 2nd spot in the league to rivals Sheffield Wednesday and losing a play off final (again) on penalties.

So what is expected of Danny Wilson’s men this time around, promotion, play offs or mid table mediocrity? Well I’m sure chairman Kevin McCabe has informed the manager promotion is the objective and Danny Wilson will have passed this message on to the players.

Since the all Yorkshire play off final the Blades have released Ched Evans, James Beattie, Steve Simonsen and a few other players who didn’t feature in the first team all to often last season.

Two main players from last season Kevin MacDonald and Lee Williamson have both signed new contracts at the club putting to bed rumours of moves to Wednesday (if you believed everything you read they had been sold to four different clubs but trained every day with the blue and white half of the city.) These two were the key players who needed to be retained along with Harry Maguire. One player we’d have liked to retain was Matthew Lowton, but the lure of Premier League clubs and what they’ll pay for our youth players is too much; we are after all a selling club and this is business after all. The fee was undisclosed but believed to be around £3million. This has kept in line United’s habit of providing young talent to the Premier League and eventually the England set up (Phil Jagielka, Gary Cahill, Kyle Walker & Kyle Naughton to name a few.)

So where does this leave us for the upcoming campaign? Well the squad is relatively similar, bar goalkeeper Simonsen, midfielder Lowton and the Welsh striker the starting line up of last season is still there. We’ve added Tony MacMahon who was Middlesborough’s player of the season last year, from Crewe we’ve captured forward Shaun Miller, from Wallsall defender Darryl Westlake and Manchester United forward John Cofie has joined on a season long loan. Matt Hill, who spent last season with the Blades on loan from Blackpool, has also been signed.

We’ve made some interesting additions if not the obvious or preferred fans choices such as Luke Freeman from Borough. But crucially the core is still there from last season who have had a season in the third tier to get to know it, learn what it’s about and what kind of football is played, and can now plan a route out of it. It’s common knowledge how many seasons it takes to get out of this division; ask Leeds, Wednesday, Forrest and Charlton fans. So now it feels with that experience we are better equipped to gain promotion. Having nearly done it last season the first time of asking the hunger will be there and we’ve proved we’re a force in the division. Of course we’re not the only team within the division with these ambitions granted but this is an open league. Coventry are making the bigger name signings, most notably Whittaker from Rangers. Doncaster have added Burnley veteran Robbie Blake amongst others in their reshaped team (similar to Charlton’s reshuffle last season) and if the signing of Billy Paynter goes through they could be a real front runner for promotion back to the Championship. Portsmouth on the other hand have experienced a mass exodus and face a tougher battle off the pitch than on it this season, it would be difficult for anybody to predict their fortunes this season.

Off the pitch at Bramall Lane, there have been redundancies made despite offloading a player to the Premier League and ridding the club of the reported £20,000 p/w wages of that Welshman. Fact is financially we are consolidating and recouping from the relegation 2 years ago which came almost out of the blue. Intent has been shown though in the fact we have had the chance to reduce wage bills further by not offering certain players new lucrative contracts and could have sold one or two more easily. Maybe it isn’t so much from an ambition to be in the Championship or a financial need to be there making whether or not United can progress as a club over the next few years hinges on promotion this time out.

If we don’t achieve it we wont, I think, be able to follow in the footsteps of Norwich, Southampton, Leeds or Wednesday and progress in the Championship but instead could follow the likes of Rotherham, Swindon or Oldham and never look like returning to the top two tiers in the foreseeable future.

It won’t be easy – I think the play off spots alone could be fought for by eight or more teams this season – and it certainly won’t be the high points tally of 90 that we achieved last year. Cofie doesn’t hold the same prowess as what we had upfront for the bulk of last season but from the friendly games I’ve been to he can spot where the net is at least.

I’m not expecting a season to grip me, to grip the whole city like it did last season but I am hoping for a promotion push with more passing, flowing football. Harry Maguire meanwhile will be watched by scouts eager to see how he matures as a footballer in his second full season.

My own prediction for the season is a top 3 finish. I might even stick my neck out and say should it be the play offs we might even surprise ourselves.