Nothing quite summed up the arrogance, ignorance and laziness of modern football opinion like one Danny Mills’ take on Sheffield United at the start of the Premier League season. While the consensus that a newly promoted team will go straight back down is nothing out of the ordinary, especially when the rise of the team in question has been so rapid and without immense investment, the minimum expectation is that a fully paid-up, ‘expert’ ex-professional who makes weekly appearances on both television and radio would do some research before answering the question.
Instead, Mills invited ridicule by dismissing the Blades as “direct”, clearly falling into the trap of expecting a northern side from the Championship to play like a northern side from the Championship.
Everything about them has been a bite on the nose for the elite of the top flight and those who profess to be experts. Only Mills himself knows why he made those comments, but he instantly gave the impression of lumping them in with the majority of other teams who have come up from the second tier. Sheffield United may appear workmanlike on paper, but a core of players who have risen through the Football League – which for a long time required both physical and mental strength more than technique – have shown themselves to be much more than that. Mills failed to understand that football isn’t only tactical at the top; change has trickled down and even teams in Yorkshire have embraced playing a different way.
The mastermind behind it all is their manager, Chris Wilder. Like his team, he is open to being dismissed by perception rather than fact. His modest playing career, brazen approach to press conferences and touchline attire mean he appears to fit the Tony Pulis mould; he is nothing of the sort and, as a result, the club and players are making people like Mills take notice. Despite playing in League One just three years ago, they have launched an unlikely bid for European qualification this season, but they have not done it via route one or by playing percentages.
Wilder has shown that even a team of misfits including Chris Basham, released by Newcastle United as a teenager, John Fleck, who never made the grade at Rangers before spells at Coventry City and Blackpool, and Football League journeyman John Lundstram can play attractive and effective football. Their biggest summer acquisitions – strikers Lys Mousset and Oli McBurnie – had no real reputation at the level they now play at; yet the club currently sit in eighth, two points off Manchester United, having beaten Arsenal and Everton as well as drawing with Chelsea and Tottenham. There has been increasing talk of overlapping centre-backs, but the mentality and organisation synonymous with managers of the ilk Mills described is still present. They have lost just two Premier League away games, at Manchester City and Liverpool, and have kept six clean sheets this term.
Everything and everyone seemed to suggest Wilder had no chance of implementing his style in the Premier League; but that is the sign of a an excellent manager. He has made the team all about the system, rather than the players, showing Aston Villa and last season’s Fulham that there are other ways of building something than spending millions upon promotion. Wilder has taken the basics of management at any level and added his own unique twist; Sheffield United have proven themselves more than capable of following that philosophy regardless of who they face. They may be operating at a different level, but teams like Arsenal and Barcelona have proved that keeping a team together and playing the same way for years can pay off in a huge way. For this side, growing from the third tier has allowed them to breach the gulf against more expensively assembled opposition. Continuity is their greatest weapon.
Questions have already been asked about the next step for Wilder. As a native of Sheffield and a Blades fan, it is hard to imagine him wanting to go anywhere else. His work has relied on that relationship with his players and fans, which seems to get stronger with every rendition of ‘Greasy Chip Butty’ on a Bramall Lane match-day. If he is to one day move on, it will have to be to the right place. He appears to have thrived on breaking down stereotypes and perhaps the next stage of that inevitably comes elsewhere, but the work being done in the Steel City doesn’t just happen; there might be something in the suggestion that Wilder and Sheffield United are a perfect match and only they together have the magic formula.
A clip of Wilder speaking after the Liverpool game, waxing lyrical about Jurgen Klopp’s men’s work rate and desire to cover the basics, sums him up. He keeps the ‘old school’ mentality in mind, but demands that quality comes hand in hand. Following defeat at home to Leicester in August, he rejected the notion that his team deserved praise for their effort and insisted that was the minimum expectation. Against the Reds a month later, he did not pander to Dean Henderson after his mistake led to the only goal of the game. Wilder does not believe he or his team deserve to be patronised; he has created something real.
Whatever Liverpool achieve this season, and they could break all sorts of records, Klopp should finish second in all managerial awards. Others have cemented teams in the Premier League after promotion, and Wilder himself will be the first to say the job is only half-done, but the way his team have performed this season – with such purity and confidence against a backdrop of doubt and dismissal – merits every accolade. Europe is probably a step too far this season, but we should learn not to have such pre-conceived notions.
Humble pie has already been eaten; the status quo has been rocked. Sheffield United’s achievements already cannot be understated, but this is the culmination of over three years’ work. All the evidence was there before. Statistics can tell a story one way or another, but just watching that Blades team shows what they’re about. Maybe next time, Danny Mills will look before he speaks.
Harry De Cosomo – follow him on Twitter