Sheffield United have spent the vast majority of the season in a position to return to the Premier League but the Blades still have to hurdle the final few weeks of the campaign to ensure that is where they finish by May.
Paul Heckingbottom’s side have not finished a day outside the play-off positions since August and have been firmly ensconced in one of the two automatic spots at the end of every post-World Cup weekend.
However, such a stellar regular season would only heighten the agony if Heckingbottom can’t nudge his side over the line.
While an FA Cup semi-final looms after a thrilling comeback against Blackburn Rovers, here are the crucial league fixtures that await Sheffield United after the March international break.
Norwich have emerged as the ultimate yo-yo team in recent years but the Canaries face an uphill scrap if they are to earn a third promotion in as many Championship seasons.
The second-tier champions from 2019 and 2021 go into the international break outside the play-off spots but only three points behind sixth-placed Millwall. David Wagner inherited a team slumped in 11th but inspired an uptick in form which could derail Sheffield United’s own promotion aspirations.
Burnley and Sheffield United have formed the division’s top two at the end of every day since the World Cup. While the Clarets are all but assured of an automatic spot with a 13-point cushion to third, the Blades do not have the same safety net, sitting just three points above Middlesbrough.
Until Manchester City unshackled Erling Haaland in the FA Cup quarter-finals, Sheffield United had been the authors of Burnley’s heaviest defeat of the season, romping to a 5-2 victory at Bramall Lane in November with, like City, four goals after the interval.
A repeat of that rout at Turf Moor is highly unlikely; Burnley have only conceded more than one goal at home in two games this season – they didn’t lose either of them.
Going into the March international break, West Brom are skirting around the periphery of the play-off spots, five points off sixth but with a game in hand on Millwall. It would very much suit Sheffield United if West Brom’s promotion hopes had been extinguished by the time they travel to Bramall Lane on the penultimate weekend of the season.
Both of Sheffield United’s joint-top scorers, Illman Ndiaye and Oli McBurnie, found the net in a 2-0 victory away to West Brom in October. No side has beaten the Baggies at the Hawthorns since but Carlos Corberan’s team are a much more feeble opponent on the road, earning just one league win away from home in 2023.
To say that Sheffield United’s record in the Championship play-offs is abysmal would be an understatement. Since the advent of a mini-tournament to decide the fate of second-tier sides in the late 1980s, Sheffield United have qualified for the play-offs five times – all have ended in failure.
In 1997, the Blades made it to their first play-offs, squeezing past Ipswich Town via away goals in the semi-finals before losing to a 90th-minute winner from Crystal Palace’s David Hopkins at Wembley. It would be the first of three play-off final defeats for the Blades – a joint record they share with Derby County and Reading.
Sheffield United returned to the play-offs last season for the first time since 2009 but once again came unstuck. Three months before Morgan Gibbs-White became Nottingham Forest’s record signing, the England youth international sparked a comeback for Sheffield United at the City Ground in the second leg of the play-off semi-finals, forcing the tie to penalties. Gibbs-White missed the decisive kick as the Tricky Trees advanced to a final they won before snapping up the playmaker that summer.
The Championship’s regular season concludes on Monday 8 May oddly, with all the teams kicking off simultaneously at 15:00 (BST). The Football League is yet to release the official dates of the play-off semi-finals but these traditionally take place on the first weekend after the season’s conclusion, which would be on 13-14 May.
The play-off pits the team that finished third at the end of the season against their sixth-placed counterparts while fourth and fifth battle it out for a spot in the final across two legs home and away.
When is the 2023 Championship play-off final?
The powers that be at England’s Football Association have been kind enough to reveal that the Football League play-off finals will take place between Saturday 27 May and Monday 29 May. With the League One and League Two finals to be played in this window, the Championship showpiece is often saved for last, with an afternoon kick-off expected.