Back in the Premier League with boyhood fans as manager and captain, playing attractive football and raising a middle finger high in the air, life is pretty sweet at Bramall Lane right now…
The football world is a pretty grim one these days. Take your pick of what depresses you the most: the big clubs owned by morally reprehensible gazillionaires; the small clubs owned by morally reprehensible chancers; the price of pretty much everything; that only a handful of clubs can realistically win anything; VAR; people talking about VAR; inter-club social media banter.
These are dark times for much of the game, but the light is touching a few places. And perhaps bathed in the warmest glow are Sheffield United. Back in the Premier League for the first time since 2007, a time in which they dropped all the way into the third tier, where they stayed for six long, grinding seasons.
Then Chris Wilder returned, since when it’s been almost constant success. Promotion from the third tier, promotion from the second tier, now the Premier League, but it’s the manner of how all that has been achieved that could make them the most satisfying club to support at the moment.
Of course, Manchester City and Liverpool fans will presumably be pretty content with how things are going, but these are clubs at which success is expected, where victory in many cases brings more relief than genuine joy. Your Bournemouths and Watfords are doing well, but have been back in the top flight for a few years now and are becoming comfortable.
But for Sheffield United, they are on the upswing and have been for three years. Not just that, but they’re doing it with a lifelong fan as a manager and a lifelong fan as club captain. And they’re doing it playing attractive, innovative football. And they’re doing all of that while being consistently underestimated, which is always satisfying.
There’s something about their squad that reminds you of the Oakland Athletics, baseball side of Moneyball fame. Not necessarily that they use statistical analysis, but that they find players discarded by others, identify what everyone else has missed and fashion a winning team from them.
Consider their players: Billy Sharp had scored 21 league goals in four seasons before he returned to Bramall Lane in 2015; he’s scored 88 in the four since. Jack O’Connell was a bit-part player for Brentford, now he’s one of United’s famous overlapping centre-backs; Ollie Norwood was a perennial nearly man, talented but not quite making the Premier League grade, and is now running games there; David McGoldrick was a talented but injury-prone Championship journeyman, released by Ipswich before becoming one of United’s key men last season. We could go on. They are, as is said in Moneyball, an island of misfit toys, but misfits that fit together perfectly.
I know more than anybody what these supporters have had to go through.
That policy is continuing. Only one of the players they paid money for in the summer was from a Premier League club. Bringing Phil Jagielka back was sentimental to a point, but also fits with the reclamation project theme. Wilder might be stretching the point in an attempt to get a tune out of Ravel Morrison, but if anyone is going to succeed, it’s him.
Wilder has an uncommon ability to get the best from players, to get inside their heads and find out what, as he put it recently, “makes them tick.” It’s the most practical form of man management, not just creating that nebulous concept of good team spirit and togetherness, but actually using personal connections with players to make a tangible difference.
A storm could be coming in the row over the club’s ownership, currently in the courts and with a verdict imminent, but at the moment everything is going right for Sheffield United, after a few years in which everything seemed to go wrong. “I know more than anybody what these supporters have had to go through,” said Wilder after their first win back in the Premier League on Saturday, 1-0 over Crystal Palace. “They really have gone through the mill. But this is definitely a day for them to enjoy, relish and stick in the memory bank.”
And the satisfying thing is they know Wilder is not just offering platitudes. He really does know. Life is sweet for Sheffield United at the moment. Maybe sweeter than for anyone else.
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