The Blades have spent very little money but their savvy manager has made sure none of their players looks out of place in the Championship
1 December ~ In early August I asked in Flashing Blade (one of the few remaining print-only fanzines) what were Sheffield United’s chances in the coming season. United had languished in League One for six seasons; promise of a recovery under Nigel Clough in 2014 began well but stuttered and eventually floundered. His successor Nigel Adkins was a catastrophe.
Then along came Chris Wilder, a boyhood Blade who had had two spells as a player with the club and acheived had success everywhere as a manager, from the Bradway Hotel in Sheffield’s Meadowhall Sunday League in the 1990s, via Alfreton Town, Halifax Town, Oxford United and Northampton Town. Even with such a record Wilder’s appointment was a bit of a gamble: he had never managed above League Two before. So when United gained just one point from the first four matches it looked a disaster of Adkins proportions.
But United lost just three of the next 42, breezing to the League One title with attacking football in which Wilder invented the concept of overlapping central defenders. But would these methods pay off against the big-spending teams of the Championship? We didn’t really need to ask.
Against Middlesbrough in the opening game United’s entire squad cost a fraction of Britt Assombalonga’s transfer fee. Since then, only Cardiff City have beaten United with any sort of comfort. United’s approach to games will inevitably bring defeats but they will never lose a game – in Wilder’s words – “by going out of the back door”.
Fulham at home was a case in point: 5-2 down and apparently dead and buried, United stormed back to 5-4 and had Fulham in a panic for the last few minutes. Four Fulham players were laid out exhausted at the final whistle and the Blades fans roaring their own players off the pitch said everything about the team Wilder has put together. It was the 4-2 win at Hillsborough that convinced supporters that United were for real. This game saw the arrival of David Brooks, a precocious 20-year-old who has shades of a young Chris Waddle or Peter Barnes.
Before the season there were doubts about several players’ ability to adapt to a higher level. Billy Sharp had not really been successful in the Championship previously, and surely Leon Clarke was too old to improve. Wilder’s summer transfer dealings were unremarkable, but he signed players to fill the team’s needs at little cost. Just three of the starting XI against Wednesday cost a transfer fee.
United have often taken the field with eight or nine of last season’s team, and they’ve all made the step up. Perhaps the most noteworthy is Jake Wright, a defender who does not look out of place in his first season at the second level, aged 31. Clarke is playing the best football of his career at 32. Sharp has scored eight times already. Enda Stevens, playing in League Two last season, has a valid claim to be the best left back in the division.
In manager Neil Harris, Saturday’s opponents Millwall have someone like Chris Wilder; a club legend who they must stick with if they want to succeed. Millwall, like Sheffield United, are a “proper” club. That’s a word Chris Wilder loves to use. It implies dignity and respect, and Wilder’s United have both of those things in abundance. Matthew Bell
Photo by Simon Gill/WSC Photos: Sheffield United fans on Bramall Lane’s Kop shield their eyes from the sun