Carla Ward's Blades look to finish off a memorable 2019 with a win
Sheffield United Women face their final game of 2019 on Sunday afternoon with a trip to Leicester City as they look to remain at least within shooting distance of FA Women's Championship leaders Aston Villa heading into the match up between the two at the start of January.
A win on Sunday would be the 20th from 28 games in all games competitions this year, and with four of those coming in the opening five games of the calendar year, it shows how remarkable Carla Ward's side have been since getting a winning run together in March.
While the year started in disappointing fashion with three straight league defeats to Tottenham, Charlton and Manchester United at home as well as a dramatic penalty shootout defeat to Villa in the FA Cup, Ward was slowly piecing together a side to go from strength to strength this season.
Man United trio Fran Bentley, Naomi Hartley and Ebony Salmon joined on loan along with the permanent signing of midfielder Maddy Cusack, all of whom had a major impact in the second half of the season, as well as the upturn in form of Jade Pennock once she moved to a more familiar role on the right wing.
The Blades hit form in March after a sole win against Loughborough Foxes in the FA Cup, a 2-0 win at home to Crystal Palace sparking a run of seven consecutive wins up to the end of the 2018/19 season, with Pennock and Salmon both on the scoresheet and the goals from both of them would be pivotal in the run of wins.
A major turning point for the team came one week later in the rearranged match away at promotion-chasing. The original clash had been called off in September due to a waterlogged pitch but the Blades arrived with good performances behind them, if not the results to show for it.
Salmon's second half strike brought the game level before Pennock slid home a stoppage time free-kick to earn the team their first victory against one of the top sides in the league and rejuvenate the side heading into the final five games of the season.
Pennock repeated the feat one week on with another last-minute winner at this weekend's opponents Leicester, before scoring again in another impressive away win at Durham. London Bees, Lewes and Millwall were all promptly dispatched as United scored 13 goals in their last three games of the season to take some real momentum into the new season after finishing fifth in their first season in the Championship.
There was a large turnaround in the squad during the summer as Ward recruited heavily ahead of a potential promotion push ahead of the new season. Players such as former captain Ellie Gilliatt and centre-back Danielle Cox departed, while Bex Rayner would leave for Nottingham Forest before the season started, joined in November by Hollie Barker, but Ward brought in a whole host of new players and several new staff members before the mouth-watering big kick-off away at Aston Villa on opening day.
Goalkeepers Becky Flaherty and Emily Batty were joined by Naomi Hartley who signed permanently from Manchester United and Ellie Fletcher who returned for a second loan spell from Liverpool. Leandra Little, Ali Johnson, Katie Wilkinson, Olivia Fergusson, Keri Matthews and Megan Tinsley, with midfielders Aimee Palmer and Kasia Lipka also arriving, the former on loan from Man United.
The Blades laid down a marker by taking a 2-0 lead at a Villa side who had also recruited heavily but a Mel Johnson hat-trick condemned the Blades to their first league defeat since February and to date their only defeat of the new season.
Ward's team responded emphatically with a 7-1 win at home to Leicester City one week later, debutant Palmer scoring twice as the Blades ran riot.
As the Continental Cup got under way, the Blades created more remarkable memories in the first game of the group stages away at Liverpool. Trailing 2-1 against FA WSL opposition with just minutes to go, Cusack's stunning strike looked to have secured at least a point, but Pennock had other ideas when she looped an effort over Fran Kitching in the final minute to secure a famous victory.
The team's form went from strength to strength with back-to-back 5-1 victories against Coventry United and Crystal Palace, before a frustrating 2-2 draw at home to Charlton Athletic set up a run of form which has been pivotal for the team's hopes in both league and cup heading into Christmas.
Three games within a week away at Lewes and Durham before a home match against the latter three days later saw the Blades take all nine points between league and cup and the 4-0 win away at the Wildcats left them top of their Continental Cup group with a game to go.
Further impressive victories away at London City Lionesses and at home to London Bees have left United in a strong position heading into their final game of the season, sitting three points behind Villa having dropped just five points all season.
While the side's final home game of the season ended in a penalty shootout defeat against Coventry United, Wilkinson's 13th and 14th goals of an impressive first half of the season in red and white secured a path to the quarter-finals of the Continental Cup for the first time and a home draw for the Blades.
Success on the pitch also brought individual recognition off it with Pennock named the league's player of the month for October and Ward picking up her second manager of the month award of 2019 for the team's winning run throughout a tough November.
Wilkinson, captain Sophie Barker and Veatriki Sarri also received player of the month nominations during the first half of the season, with the whole team contributing to a superb season so far.
Both Flaherty and Batty have kept their first clean sheets in red and white in back-to-back games against Durham, while Barker and Sarri from full-back have provided goals and assists this season. Centre-back pairing Hartley and Little have formed a solid partnership while in front of them midfield trio Cusack, Palmer and Sam Tierney have formed a strong base for the side. Cusack and Palmer have regularly been in the goals as well as creating them while Tierney popped up with her first goal for the club at home to Blackburn in the cup.
The regular front three of Pennock, Wilkinson and Fergusson already have a staggering 31 goals between them this season, but the whole squad has been utilised and no player hasn't played their part so far this season. Lipka made her long-awaited return from injury against Lewes and made her first start on Wednesday night against Coventry, while Chloe Dixon has been a consistent performer whether used as a striker or a full-back, her versatility proving key during a big run of games in quick succession.
Teenager Matthews bagged her first goal for the club just before her 17th birthday away at Durham, set up by a stunning through ball from Alethea Paul, another player who has shown quality and versatility being used as a number 10 and more recently at left-back, particularly impressive when getting forward against London City. With only Johnson and Fletcher currently unavailable, the depth Ward has at her disposal will be vital heading into a crucial 2020 with promotion very much a possibility.
The Blades will host leaders Aston Villa at the Proact Stadium on January 12th in the first game back after the winter break, a match will be pivotal in deciding who goes up to the FA WSL at the end of the season.
Whatever may happen in 2020, 2019 has been one to remember for a squad with just one game to go on Sunday.