A good time to be playing Sheffield United - Smith

Boro boss Gary Smith looks ahead to Saturday’s televised clash with promotion-chasing Blades

GARY SMITH, the Stevenage manager, believes it is a good time to play Sheffield United ahead of Boro’s trip to Bramall Lane on Saturday.

The Blades currently sit in second place in League 1, but Danny Wilson’s team was rocked by the news last Friday that 29-goal top-scorer Ched Evans is to serve a five-year prison sentence for rape. Add to that third top-scorer Richard Cresswell also looks like missing the clash – to be screened live on Sky Sports – then suddenly a trip to Yorkshire looks far less daunting for Smith and his players than it would have done a fortnight ago.

But despite news of United’s problems in attack, Smith reckons their opponents have enough in reserve to still pose a substantial threat to his team.

“They’ve got a multitude of riches up front, and I believe Cresswell is struggling with an injury, but they’ve got the likes of James Beattie, Michael O’Halloran and Chris Porter so they’ve got a lot of options,” said Smith.

“I read that 50 per cent of their goals have been scored by Evans and Cresswell so that’s a huge amount of firepower the side has lost. And I think the other thing to consider, not being in their camp of course, is how the press and the stories [concerning Evans] have affected the rest of their group.

“It’s been a difficult time for them and defeat last week [away at MK Dons] has done nothing to allay their concerns of losing their top goalscorer. And while we want to go there and do well, it’s a good time to be playing them.”

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Boro’s 2-1 victory against Brentford last Saturday was their third win on the spin, and they now sit in sixth place following Notts County’s slip-up at home to Bury. Smith spoke prior to last weekend about the pressure of being the team in sixth place – at that point County – and how it can affect a team’s mindset and performance on the pitch.

But despite going into the match against Sheffield United now in the last play-off spot, Smith says it will be the home players who will feel more pressure to win all three points come kick-off at 5.20pm – not his.

“If you look at the balance of it, Sheffield United are favourites to win the game,” Smith said. “They will certainly feel as if the weight of the city is on their shoulders given they’re in second spot and destiny is in their own hands. So I would expect there’s going to be huge amounts of expectation for them come Saturday afternoon.

“I don’t think too many teams expected us to be involved at this point. We’re in a real good spot and the guys are extremely confident and buoyant.

“The challenges they’ve faced up until this point – including two tough games against Carlisle and Brentford where we were under just as much pressure ourselves to get results and give ourselves a chance – and now I think that pressure has been relieved.

“The one thing we’d like to be able to do is leave Sheffield on Saturday evening in a position we can control. And if we can do that I think we’ll have done as good a job as we possibly could given how the season has unfolded.

“It’s a great challenge for us, and if you look at what may or may not happen – and of course none of us want to look too far ahead – if circumstances contrive we could actually be playing Sheffield United over two legs in the play-offs.

“So there is a lot to be learnt from Saturday – hopefully off the back of three points – and hopefully those points will lead us to where we want to be.”

A sell-out crowd is expected for the match – including around 1,000 Boro supporters – and Smith insists his players are well-drilled for occasions such as this having performed so well against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane last month, as well as several other high-pressure fixtures in recent seasons.

“The guys here have seen and done an awful lot in the last two or three years,” he added. “Their experiences will stand them in good stead come the weekend and we’ve seen it plenty of times before – when things don’t quite go right for the home team in the early stages – those 25,000 fans are not cheering your name, they’re booing every decision you make. And that can be really detrimental to a player’s performance so our job is to be competitive, and make sure the game is tight and show, yet again, what improvements we’ve made and what a good side we are.”