Sheffield United Season Preview: ending the exile

For five years, Sheffield United had been League One’s perennial underachievers, a club that dwarfed it’s competitors in terms of stature but was unable to get promoted. Last season, not only did they do that, they did so by a margin of 18 points, the biggest third tier cushion since a win has merited three points. Supporter Gav P discusses what has gone right under Chris Wilder.

There are a lot of things. He is a true Blade, his history with the club is well documented. He understands the club and the supporters, he is after-all one of us but more importantly he had an insight into the players at the club the day he was employed as the manager. He became the Blades boss on the 12th of May 2016 but needed no pre-season to know who was a vital member of the playing staff to get the club back on the up and who wasn’t the right player for the job. That insight meant he got on with the task in hand immediately which is why he gave the armband with no hesitation to Billy Sharp.

He got the club to pay off big earners/big let downs like Dean Hammond and transfer listed ones who were not performing. He then brought in good players and gelled them into a team. His man management has to be truly admired as he turned under-performing players into fans favourites and star performers, Kieron Freeman and Paul Coutts pay testament to that.

The team spirit and the desire from the team to play for the shirt was something not seem at the Blades for a very long time and this in turn got the fans behind the team and the club. As proven at the end of the 15/16 season under Nigel Adkins and the lap of so-called-honour at Bramall Lane was met with abuse and walk outs from the faithful it was clear the fans and the club were not as one.

Chris Wilder changed all that. Desire, passion, good signings, good football, confidence, lots of goals and a real buzz about the place. These are things that had gone AWOL at Bramall Lane that Chris Wilder, the management team and the players have brought back.

One or two teams have dominated League One with three-at-the-back, then found it left them too open in the Championship. Should Wilder stick with the same system?

No. You never should stick with the same system. You will be found out very quickly if you do. Chris Wilder is great at man management but I firmly believe he is also very tactically astute. So yes, we will go with a system that works with attack minded wing backs but I’m sure if we start to be hurt down our flanks as a result then Wilder will act accordingly. This will be for me one of the biggest tests in the Championship to see if a winning formula in League One can work at a higher level.

You didn’t have too many natural centre-backs, with Ethan Ebanks-Landell’s loan expired and James Wilson transfer listed. Was Richard Stearman an important signing?

Very. Yes we need centre-backs but we also need ones with experience at playing at this level. I know that Richard Stearman is not the best defender in the Championship but for me he is the best defender for what we need. He has been a captain at his previous clubs and that means he is a leader and a communicator.
Jake Wright joined us last season from Oxford United with exactly the same qualities. Most Blades fans didn’t know who he was and most Oxford United fans were bemused by it and said he was sub material at best.

He became one of our most important defenders, played 20+ games and never lost a match. He organised, communicated, was a leader on and off the pitch and I think Stearman is a similar signing.

Coutts impressed last year – you must be delighted with his performances…

The master stroke for me from Wilder with regards to Coutts was to give him a chance. Wilder placed Coutts on the transfer list immediately and with many managers that means your time is up, move on, you’re not wanted but under Wilder, if you work hard and show you want to stay and prove him wrong he is not stubborn enough to stick to his initial decision. Brilliant.

Wilder filled Coutts with confidence and surrounded him with very good ball playing midfielders and as a result Coutts shone. The fact that Paul Coutts had plenty of critics in the stands and he won them all round with his performances and earned himself a two year contract, is all testament to Chris Wilder’s man management skills. He also has valuable Championship experience so it will be interesting to see what he can do next season.

Most would say John Fleck was the best midfielder in League One last season. He has a little bit of everything in his game, doesn’t he?

And most would be right. How we managed to get this guy on a free is unreal and to this day will be the best transfer signing for years for Sheffield United. He has a great touch, he has a range of passing that is stunning, he brings so many players into play, he loves to run with the ball at defenders and towards the end of the season started adding goals to his game too. He scored the winning goal at Northampton Town which secured our promotion.

The only thing missing from his game is not doing it at a high level. He is 25 and should be at Championship level minimum so it is great he is there with the Blades to prove and test himself. This is a player who definitely should be thought of for the Scotland national side in the future.

Mark Duffy has excelled in League One in the last two seasons. At 31 now though, is this his last chance to prove himself at Championship level?

You would have to say yes. He is a bit of a strange one really as he has bundles of ability but he has never really settled down at any one club and has moved around a lot of late. The biggest club he played for before Sheffield United was Birmingham City and he only made 4 appearances so this is a real chance for him to really show what he can do in the Championship. You would think if he leaves Bramall Lane that it would be back down the league.

Billy Sharp scored some 30 goals last season and clearly loves the club. Will he be your main asset in the Championship?

Yes if you are talking about our strike force but has proven himself to be a fantastic captain and will no doubt need all of his skills as a leader this season in what could be a very challenging season.

His goal to game ratio in the Championship is far less than it is in League One so I doubt we can rely on him to provide another 30 goals so all of our strikers will have to step up and alleviate the pressure on his shoulders. I do believe our main asset in the Championship will be the midfielders behind him and their ability to create the chances.

Your first signing of the summer was Ched Evans – who I’m willing to accept back in the game but respect other views. From a footballing perspective, is he a better option than any of your current strikers?

We will have to see. He has been out of football for a long time and didn’t exactly shine for Chesterfield last season so I do not know what Ched Evans we are going to get. If it is the Ched Evans who played under Danny Wilson then yes. I am trusting Wilder and his ability to get players playing to the best of their ability on this one.

A lot of your new players, including full-backs George Baldock and Enda Stevens, have done well in the lower league without proving themselves at Championship level. Are they better than what you’ve got?

Time will tell. Both Stevens and Baldock were very highly thought of at the clubs we bought them from, they are both young and hungry and that is what Wilder tends to look for in a player.

It will be harder for Stevens to compete with Freeman on the right for me than it will be for Baldock to compete with Lafferty. Freeman had a superb season in League One and flourished under Wilder providing assists and goals. He has just been rewarded with a 3 year contact, not bad for a player who was transfer listed when Wilder took charge. Lafferty was not as consistent and even though he has played at Championship level before I can see him having a real tug of war for the shirt with George Baldock over the season.

Goalkeeper Simon Moore started all 43 league games he was available for after joining from Cardiff. Given that you struggled in the first three, is it reasonable to assume he made a big impact?

Huge. Simon Moore was one of the best signings of the season for me. Confident, big, strong, a calming influence at the back, a great shot stopper. He can make one or two mistakes but the important thing is that the fans believed in him immediately. George Long started the first 3 games in goal and he has superb potential but you got the sense the fans had lost a bit of faith in him and George Long had lost a bit of confidence in himself. The whole defence seemed nervy and on edge and it showed.

Long needed some time out of the side, he needed to rebuild his confidence and in stepped Simon Moore who picked up the No 1 shirt and ran with it from the first game. He has Championship experience so it will be good to see how he does next season and a nice introduction back into the league for him against his old club Brentford for the first game.

What are your thoughts ahead of the Championship season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

The Championship is a very different beast to the one we dropped out of 6 years or so ago. The money being spent in the Championship now is akin to the money being spent in the Premier League when we got promoted into that in 2006. It’s scary. We are haggling over £100k here or there for transfers when players are moving around for £10million+.

Huddersfield have shown though that if you get a team and get the right balance you do not have to spend big to get promotion and compete at the top. Some teams spend big and build a team of individuals The one thing Wilder will always do is build a team that pulls together and fights for each other and when you have that you can go far.

There are no dark horses now in this league because of the money spent and the attention it brings. I think Wolves will do well but they should given the money spent on the players coming in. A team that I always like and think could achieve a play-off place is Brentford. Finished 10th last season, made some shrewd signings and Griffin Park is a tough place to go so if they can improve on last season they could be top 6. That’s why I think the Blades at home to Brentford on the opening day of the season is one of the toughest starts we could have had.

Where will you finish?

I will predict 1st……..no 2nd…..no add them together, 12th. A season of getting to grips with the Championship and a platform to build on for the season after.

The Football Lab’s Verdict

Sheffield United dominated League One, but apart from perhaps talisman Sharp, last season’s stars are yet to prove themselves at this level. Centre-back Stearman is the only new signing who bucks that trend, with lower league additions suggesting consolidation is the name of the game. 18th




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