I still need reminding what most of the Sheffield United team looks like. And I suspect I am not alone. John Fleck I know because on more than one occasion I’ve seen him score splendid goals and watched him celebrate like he’d never quite believed a guy like him would be doing things like this; but he looked almighty pleased and that sticks in your mind. Dean Henderson, because you know where you’re looking, and because he seems almost comically well-suited to following the well-worn ‘what a promising beginning’ path trodden by Joe Hart and Jordan Pickford before him. Only about one or two others, maximum, could I definitively say ‘that is so-and-so’. But I know pretty much all of their names.
A name and face I’m much more familiar with, will probably remember fondly until the day I die, is that of their manager. Our manager, as was. By ‘our’, I mean of course Northampton Town FC.
It’s probably a fact that, if you’re going to take (as a manager) the long and rocky road through the lower echelons of league football to eventually get to the top, and thrive there – that path so gushed over by the PFMs – winning League Two probably isn’t enough. If you win League Two by three points over a competitive Southend and a redoubtable Plymouth, you’re not automatically good enough to be a Premier League manager. That sounds cruel, but then we’re talking about filling one of a maximum five managerial spots in the richest, most powerful league in the world. Of course the acid which strips away pretenders is going to be harsh.
But Chris Wilder did more. He took the Cobblers from what, two seasons before, wasn’t so much flirting with relegation as having the bra fully off and one hand fumbling in the bedside-table drawer, to breaking their own successive wins record en route to smashing the league as a whole. At season’s close, Sheffield United – his boyhood club – came calling, and what could we really say? Apart from yes, Chris might have ‘it’.
Yet, the point of this column – if it can have such a vaulted ambition as ‘a point’ – is that the real challenge is about to arrive for his Sheffield United team. What they’ve just done, and are in the process of doing, is the easy part.
Which might sound fatuous; he’s in the process of taking this club – which, compared for example to the moronic transfer fees Villa whomped over the summer on not very much, strikes you as frugal to say the least – to a potential European berth at their very first try. That’s how they handled the challenge of near-certain relegation. And supposedly that wasn’t the hard part?
Correct. For a number of reasons. Although, just to do some quick housekeeping on our collective football souls, the premise that Sheffield United were near-certain relegation fodder is a false one in the first place. Anyone who watched even one game last season would be able to attest that they’re a team, in the truest sense, not a pasted collage of individuals. Hence, they’re likely to be better than many of the Premier League’s ‘pretend’ sides. It’s only because we’ve all got a bit of modern football cancer that its tumour has blinded us to the reality: that from QPR of a few years ago to the recent travails of Everton and Man United, spending large amounts of money on randomers is never a path to success.
Not to say that Sheffield United’s approach guarantees it, but it certainly gives you a fighting chance. The proof – imagine Villa’s season if they didn’t have the die-hard commitment of one-man team in Jack Grealish; consider Fulham’s £100million effort last year – is so evident as to be barely worth mentioning.
So there was always a chance that if they stuck to their principles, they could stay in the Premier League. But there is a big difference in the the psychology of those principles when you are going into a fight as the underdog and the psychology of switching from survival mode to progress. It’s a new order of examination. Your back is no longer against the wall, and it’s possible that wall was actually quite a comforting brace for your approach.
So there’s that, for starters, the subtle shift in psychology. Much less subtle, but the key practical difference from this season to next, is that you lose your most valuable offensive element: that of surprise. Anyone who’s ever had a cat and seen it approach something it does not understand will know that they cannot go blindly for the kill. That’s how it’s been with Premier League teams approaching Sheffield United, as it was with Wolves last season; these two were clearly not just going to hunker down and hope in the predictable manner of promoted teams you can swat aside. They go for it, and you couldn’t be sure of the dynamics, hence you got nervy, hence they got emboldened.
The inequality of data is, for once, vastly in the underdog’s favour. Sheffield United had plenty of last season to consider opponents they would face if they were promoted. Is it foolish to imagine they might have done just that? If not, there is no shortage of information on those teams. But were Spurs or West Ham supposed to monitor the progress of Sheffield United’s promotion push and consider how they might or might not play against this team? Instead everything has to be learnt on the job, as it’s coming at you.
How to sum up Sheffield United under Chris Wilder? Here’s them casually building-up in open play with five players in the box, two of them being centre-backs.
This is just from building-up patiently in possession – sights you expect see from set-pieces, not from this side though pic.twitter.com/ApaoVoxv64
— Michael (@greenallefc) February 9, 2020
No longer, obviously. Now you know their centre-back hates getting it under pressure on his right side, you know they’re iffy from throw-ins in their own half, and we all know that in the Premier League’s modern, analytical guise, an army of laptops will be tasked with figuring out a perfect way to exploit that. Witness the relative restrictions Wolves have found this season on what seemed an irresistible approach.
Furthermore – and this is the part that’s hardest of all – you’re now expected to compete. You’ve shown you can. And though I obviously can’t speak for the sensibilities of Blades fans in particular, I know football fans in general, and while they might mouth the platitudes of ‘keeping our feet on the ground’ and ‘just enjoying the journey’, once you’ve seen your team take points off the biggest names in all of football, it’s impossible not to feel – and to transmit to the players the feeling of expectation – that if they could do it before, they should be able to do it again.
It seems most football players have pretty finely balanced psychologies, liable to get thrown out of whack by not much; the annals of the Premier League are littered with names – Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll, Luke Shaw and David Bentley – who could do a lot when everything they did was a happy bonus, and little when they felt like they must. Such are the fine margins that split the real players from the ones who are, ultimately, just there to make up the numbers.
And you’d be silly to swear by the iron-clad mentality of this current Sheffield United team. Part of me feels the complete opposite, that the nature of most of these players’ careers has given them a grounding and resilience that, to pick a somewhat vindictive example, you know Phil Foden doesn’t yet have. The other part is aware that in football there will forever be a ‘put yer medals on the table’ mentality, and Wilder’s legendary performance at League Two-winning Cobblers and Ollie McBurnie’s Barnsley Player of the Year award in 2018 notwithstanding, you could see how these players – when they feel a new pressure of requirement – may suddenly wonder what exactly they have to justify it.
McBurnie (the one with the beard) is a good example of where the problems may rear next season as none of him, Billy Sharp or David McGoldrick are Premier League class. Which was, in the underdoggish way of new arrivals, sort of fine. It’s part of their whole backs-against-the-wall thing, having somewhat incapable strikers; it perversely almost inspires the whole team to chip in, as they have to a mind-boggling level. That will feel quite different next season.
But perhaps – the final banana skin – they actually replace them over the summer. Sheffield United will be, for the first time, smacked in the face by the big wet kiss of Premier League TV money, and will surely feel obliged to spend some. A new and competent striker will only make them better; but the risk obviously is, for a team that is so inherently ‘a team’, buying players who then skew its fine-tuned dynamics. Then you get into real deep water, because then the players have to start relying more on their individual qualities and that’s not going to work as well.
The flip side of this is how big a reward awaits, if you can pass this most difficult challenge. One season could still, even if they end up making the Champions League, be attributed to a combination of luck and maximising all of the advantages a newly-promoted team has and a second-season team has not. But if you can ride that approach through the second season and make it work, make it clear in the minds of both the players and the manager that your success is not by luck but by design, it is set in stone, as far as anything in the Premier League ever can be.
And despite listing all the reasons why next season is a potential looming disaster for the Blades, I’m down for Wilder on this one.
Frank Lampard, you can see, is always about ten inches, one fluffed ‘no, seriously though’ in a press conference, from being overawed by his responsibilities. Wilder, by comparison, has done his managerial career the hard way, and there’s a granite in his tone when he speaks, an assured sense that he has drank at all the different watering holes of football and now here he is, ready to construct his own personal brand of ice cream. I personally believe that, all of those challenges being very real, knowing that the ghosts of Ipswiches and Readings past await him, he will still find the way to successfully navigate them.
Then Everton will poach him – once Carlo’s eyebrow has fallen from the appeal of his Merseyside adventure back down to earth – and off we go again.