Yesterday I did a post discussing how It’s The Journey, Not The Ending, That Counts. I also suggested that one of the reasons why I feel like this is thanks to my exposure to Japanese literature/culture. But there is an elephant in the room. What about the world of sports? Surely here it is the final result, how a team has performed across a season that counts. I really want to say ‘no’ – thanks to the teams that I support. How many times have the Hanshin Tigers faltered at the end (the 2021 being a classic)? And, until 2022, Cincinnati Bengals hadn’t managed to win a playoff game for over 30 years… and then they went a whole load and got to the Superbowl, but yet again finished as runners-up. But when it comes to playoffs, my support of Sheffield United is the one that tests my views on the journey rather than the ending being the key aspect. And, incredibly (but is it a good thing?) the Blades are in the playoffs again.
Before saying anything further about the 2021-22 season, let’s just take a look at Sheffield United’s record in the playoffs to date. The table provide the summary in reverse chronological order…
|2014-5||League 1||Lost at semi-final stage to Swindon (7-6 on aggregate)|
|2012-3||League 1||Lost at semi-final stage to Yeovil Town (2-1 on aggregate)|
|2011-2||League 1||Lost final to Huddersfield Town (lost 8-7 on penalties after 0-0 draw)|
|2008-9||Championship||Lost final to Burnley (1-0)|
|2002-3||Championship||Lost final to Wolverhampton Wanderers (3-0)|
|1997-8||Division 1||Lost at semi-final stage to Sunderland (3-2)|
|1996-7||Division 1||Lost final to Crystal Palace (1-0)|
|1987-8||Division 2/3||Lost at semi-final stage to Bristol City (2-1 on aggregate)|
So there you have the summary. But the summary doesn’t tell the full story. The last entry (which was in a season two years before I started supporting the Blades) meant that United were relegated from Division 2 to Division 3. Yes, Sheffield United have been in the playoffs (up to 2021) 8 times, have never been promoted once and have been relegated once. I cannot imagine that there is any other team with such a bad record.
Another thing that the table doesn’t really tell you is the stories that go with the above. I went to all four of the finals that United got to. The Crystal Palace one? The goal was scored in the last minute. Wolves? We were 3-0 down at half-time, missed a penalty in the second half… and all this was taking place in Cardiff where I was now living, so I had the pain of seeing the stadium where we lost on my way to work every day. Burnley? A goal out of the blue. And as for Huddersfield? 8-7 on penalties at the end of a season when automatic promotion seemed a certainty until a crazy end to the season (and I don’t want to even mention which team went up at our expense).
I’m really not sure now how many of the semi-final stage matches that I went to. I definitely was at the home one against Sunderland. I also have a feeling that somehow I was at the one against Forest in the 2002-3 season – despite the fact that I was living in Cardiff by this time. Or perhaps, it’s just that I have seen the video of Paul Peschisolido’s winner so many times, my brain has come to the conclusion that I saw it live (I have the same issue with Dean Saunder’s cheeky goal against Port Vale)
The goal, or rather the celebration (although it was a great goal) against Forest is so famous, that it can be found on most social media platforms as a GIF.
That win against Nottingham Forest and then the defeat against Wolves came in the season that is referred to as the ‘triple assault’. United got to the semi-final of the FA Cup (lost 1-0 to Arsenal in a match which is best remembered for one of the best saves ever made by a goalkeeper – I’ve provided a link to it, but I cannot watch it again… and to be honest, even when I do watch it, I’m still sure the ball will goes in THIS time, surely). United also got to the semi-final of the League Cup – losing 3-2 to Liverpool over two matches. Remember United were a Championship team. Which is part of the reason why we ended up in the Championship playoffs. Which inevitably we lost. But not just by one goal. We were destroyed 3-0 in 45 minutes. At the end of the season we had won nothing. But it had been an amazing journey. Was the journey enough? At the time, I would say no. For many years I would say no. Now? I’m not so sure. Perhaps that’s another reason I try to live by the ethos that it’s the journey that counts.
So what about the 2021-2 season? To understand this season, you need to keep in mind that we started the season with Slaviša Jokanović as manager and started the season badly. It wasn’t a surprise when the manager was sacked. It was a surprise when Paul Heckingbottom was appointed on a long contract. But what a turn around. Listening to the excellent Blades Pod recently, they provided the statistic that had United had Heckingbottom for the whole season and United performed in the first part of the season (that is, up to 25 November) as they did for the rest of the season, United would have finished top of the table, 5 points clear of Fulham (who we beat 4-0 and did the double over on the last day of the season – where did that come from given the injury crisis we’ve had since January?).
I managed to get to two games this season. The first of these will go down as perhaps my favourite ever United match that I have been to (and I used to go to many more than I do these days). The atmosphere amongst the away fans was amazing (unlike the library-like atmosphere from the home fans). Here are the highlights – to be honest I forgot that we conceded any goals the afternoon was so fun… and the goals are worth watching, especially one of them.
I also got to one game at Beautiful Down Town Bramall Lane this season, seeing the 1-0 victory over QPR.
Returning to Blades Pod, it was pointed out that for the first time we’re actually going to play-offs in good form. This raises some hope about a good ending. I wonder what torture will conjured up this time, then. Oh, and the first step is the semi-final stage against Nottingham Forest again.
Of course now I really hope we beat Forest and make it to the final. I hope that if we get to the final that I can get hold of tickets. I hope that we win. Of course I do. But if we lose? It has been an amazing journey this season and much better than it was looking like for many months.
And, to be honest, I prefer the Championship to the Premier League. Sure, being in the Premier League is a great status thing – but there are less matches (and they have VAR) and due to the awful way that money has come to dominate the sport – the reality is that we are likely to be losing more games than not and the target will be to avoid relegation. We could have a great run – and there’s no doubt that until COVID-19 ruined it – the 2019-20 season was amazing, but on balance the Championship is where we are likely to win more games (I don’t want to even think about dropping back out of that division and spending any more time in League 1 again, no team from a city the size of Sheffield should ever be stuck in League 1 or below – it’s a great league for certain teams (such as my second team, Shrewsbury Town – although I have happy memories of them doing well in what would now be the Championship, and I hope they get promoted back there again one day) but not for teams that really should be in a higher league).
To return to the title – is it the journey or the ending that will count? Rationally, the journey (especially if you support the teams that I do). But, what’s rationality got to do with football and sports?
[UPDATE 19/5/2022]: Sheffield United lost to Nottingham Forest at the semi-final stage of the playoffs. No surprise. The main surprise was the nature of the lost, having lost 2-1 at home (should have lost by more), United came back to win the return match 2-1 (the first away win in the playoff appearances)(and only a great save by the Forest keeper stopped United grabbing a win at the death)… and then ended up losing on Penalties. Well, of course, they did. Always striving to find new ways of bringing new pain to the playoffs – had a PK loss in the final before, but not the semi-final stage. A few days on, as much as I’m frustrated by the result, given the state of the squad, and my previous comments on the Championship compared to the Premier League, I stand by my comment on the the importance of the journey over the end. I may not feel the same at the end of next season.