Sheffield United v Leeds United: Blades are not and out yet - Doyle INTERVIEW

Michael Doyle in match action for Leeds United against Swindon Town last season.
Michael Doyle in match action for Leeds United against Swindon Town last season.
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Recognisable faces should surround Simon Grayson at Bramall Lane.

Between his squad and that chosen by Sheffield United manager Micky Adams, as many as nine of the players who dragged Leeds United over the line last season will have a hand in a pressing Yorkshire derby.

Six of them are under Grayson’s wing and three belong to Adams: Neill Collins, Shane Lowry and Michael Doyle. That’s without mentioning Richard Cresswell and Sam Vokes, two other Sheffield United players with previous history at Elland Road. Familiarity promises to abound in Sheffield; niceties less so.

This particular fixture has a tendency to matter, for reasons of ambition as much as the issue of local rivalry and the clubs’ last fixture at Bramall Lane in 2006 threw together two teams with a shared vision of promotion from the Championship.

No less is riding on this weekend’s derby, though Leeds are alone in thinking about the Premier League. Ranked 23rd and six points from safety, Sheffield United have the guise of a club whose relegation is all but signed and sealed.

Doyle has dipped his toes in League One before and, however pleasant the memories, he has no appetite for joining the division again. The midfielder was a cog in the machine that freed Leeds from League One at the third attempt last May during a season he considers “the finest of my career”.

So desperate is Sheffield United’s plight that he might see their survival as a comparable emotional achievement.

“Relief would probably be the word,” Doyle said. “If we stay up then I’ll feel relief more than anything else. There’s no doubt that we’re in trouble and you have to be honest with yourself about that, but, as I keep saying, we’re not dead yet – not by a long way.”

How Sheffield United came to this is, perhaps, a question for another day; one the club will debate at length over the summer, regardless of what next season holds.

To date this season, they have employed three permanent managers and one caretaker and now rest in the hands of their former trainee Adams.

Over 37 games, Sheffield United have gathered 32 points, fewer than every Championship club bar Preston North End. Seven of those points have come since Adams’ appointment on December 30.

Doyle joined Sheffield United from Coventry City in the final week of the January transfer window and did not expect, two months later, to be describing survival as a “massive achievement if we can make it happen”. To do so, he conceded that they must start with a victory tomorrow against a club who have blossomed since his season-long loan at Elland Road ended last summer.

Judge

“I’ve lost count of the number of people who look at our squad and say we shouldn’t be in this position,” said Doyle.

“Everyone thinks that on paper we’re too good. But paper doesn’t mean anything. You get results on grass and we haven’t had enough of them.

“The league table is the only judge of that. It’s the old saying about being too good to go down – but no club is.

“I’ve only been here for a couple of months but they’ve been hard months. The frustrating thing is that they’ve been hard for other clubs too.

“The likes of Derby County, Coventry and Doncaster – they’ve all had bad periods of form and we’ve let them get away with it. They got off lightly – the chance was there for us to take advantage.

“But if you asked around the managers in the bottom section of the league, I think they’ll all be looking over their shoulders. I’m convinced that one of the clubs in the bottom three will suck someone else in and I still feel it could be us.

“However, we’re almost past the point of talking about what we’re going to do. It needs to happen now. What we don’t want is a scenario where we need to win all our last three or four games to have any chance.”

While Sheffield United burn, Leeds are coming quietly to the boil. With nine games to play, it is still not clear whether the play-offs are the limit of United’s potential or whether automatic promotion will offer itself yet.

A win for Norwich City at home to Bristol City on Monday night moved them to second place, five points beyond Leeds.

Doyle knows Grayson’s squad inside out and the majority of the players used most regularly in League One last season are still at Elland Road. Some, like his old midfield partners Neil Kilkenny and Bradley Johnson, have been every bit as prominent in a higher division.

United’s league position is a surprise to some but not to Doyle, a player who saw at close quarters how Grayson’s management works.

“They weren’t exactly an unknown quantity coming into this league,” Doyle said. “Every club was aware of them and most of us expected big things of them.

“Okay, they’re in a higher league than last season, but they’re suited to it. Look how strong their midfield is: Johnson, Kilkenny, (Max) Gradel, (Robert) Snodgrass – it’s a fantastic set of players at this level.

“For me, they were always going to make an impact. I played there for a year and I know Simon’s style.

“They never sit back and never play for a draw. They get into you from the off and they play as if they expect to win every game. It’s intimidating for other teams because Leeds come across as a side with no doubt or fear.

“It’s cup finals for them now and cup finals for us too. The derby’s is a huge game. We’re obviously under pressure but you’ve got to enjoy these occasions and produce the goods when it counts. They’ll see that we’re not down and out.”

“There’s a real willingness amongst the players to fight. I’m not seeing any disharmony or anything like that.

“We have regular team meetings and a lot of discussions about how to sort this out. But we’re at the point where we need to get results instead of talking about them. It has to start tomorrow.”

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