Systems might change and Pep Guardiola probably begs to differ but Jake Wright is proving there is still a place for a good old fashioned centre-half.
“Hopefully there will always be a place for us although I like to think I can play a bit too. Listen, there are players in this team who I’d rather have on the ball than me any day of the week. But if I can win it and give it to them then, as far as I’m concerned, it’s job done.”
Defenders who tackle first and save the fancy stuff for later might be a dying breed in English football. But as Wright’s performances for Sheffield United demonstrate, they are worth their weight in gold. The League One leaders average 2.55 points per game when the 30-year-old features and, following Tuesday’s draw at Bristol Rovers, are still unbeaten with him in the team.
“I know a lot of people have been talking about my record,” Wright admits. “But, really, it’s just one of those things. The best thing about this side is the togetherness, that’s our strongest point. Whatever we achieve, it’s down to us all. Everybody, whether they are playing or not, chips in. We’re all in this as one big group.”
United enter tomorrow’s meeting with second-placed Scunthorpe five points clear of Graham Alexander’s side and seven ahead of Bolton Wanderers in third. Despite their achievements this season, Wright says he has yet to hear the ‘P’ word mentioned at Bramall Lane.
“Obviously lads go home and will look at the fixtures but, as a team and a club, we’re not. We’re just taking things game by game and step by step. We’re not talking about promotion, It would be disrespectful to other teams for us to do that and I don’t suppose anyone around us is doing it either.”
Chris Wilder, who yesterday dismissed suggestions that the scramble for the Championship is now a three horse-race, has assembled a relentlessly attack-minded team since taking charge nine months ago. But, after scoring 58 goals in only 31 outings, switching to a three man defence has arguably been his most effective tactical tweak.
“I like playing in a three. I prefer being in the centre,” Wright says. “This way, it suits the personnel. It suits us at the back and it suits the whole team. It means Sharpy (Billy Sharp) has got someone with him up front, it suits Mark Duffy being in the hole with Couttsy (Paul Coutts) and Flecky (John Fleck) behind him. We’re an attacking team but we’ve still got three centre-halves on the pitch.”
“In the middle, I’m not expected to get forward. Ethan (Ebanks-Landell), Jack (O’Connell) and Bash (Chris Basham) are expected to get forward a little bit more and go on the overlap. But, if you do that, you can’t see everything that’s going on. That’s my job, the watch all of that unfolding and happening. I can stand there and try and organise from the back.
“(Goalkeeper) Simon (Moore) never shuts up,” Wright adds. “That’s what you want, you want communication. “Sometimes it doesn’t make sense but it keeps you on your toes. I’m the same. I’m sure the lads sometimes think what am I on about that for. But it helps to keep me on my toes too.”
Having emerged as an integral part of United’s three man rearguard, Wright is also a poster boy for Wilder’s campaign to wean Bramall Lane off its fascination for expensive, big money signings. A former Bradford City trainee, he made only one senior appearance before moving to Halifax Town in 2006 where, after replacing Neil Redfearn four years earlier, Wilder was still an up-and-coming non-league coach.
Like United’s manager, Wright has no regrets about learning his trade outside of an academy although, he admits, it was a tough experience at the time.
“It’s difficult to become a professional footballer, so many lads try it, get released and then go into non-league,” Wright says. “Obviously being in non-league, you’ve got that hunger. This is the biggest and the best club I’ve been at. But I’ve seen the other side and it’s not so good; not knowing where you are going to be training, if your kit is going to be there and if there’s going to be something to eat. Here, everything is done for you and that makes such a difference. You can just concentrate on your game.”
“At the end of my career, I might go back to that for a few years, non-league football,” he continues. “Who knows? I certainly wouldn’t be ashamed to do it. But I want to be here for as long as I can. Because I’m absolutely loving it.”
Wilder was so impressed with Wright’s attitude that, after taking charge of Oxford in 2008, he resurrected their partnership at the Kassam Stadium. A member of the squad which won the Conference play-off final later that season, Wright spent seven years in the south-east before, seven months ago, linking-up with his mentor again.
“We obviously know each other well,” Wright says. “But, when I came here, I didn’t get any guarantees. I know what the gaffer is like and you’ve got to work for everything. I had to bide my time and wait for an opportunity. Not so long ago, I found myself out of the team again. But you can still contribute, still help out. You’re always disappointed but you do that at home. When you come in, you’ve got to be bright and happy. Because it’s not about individuals, it’s about the team.”
That selfless approach goes a long way towards explaining why, despite Oxford’s doubts about his suitability, Wilder was convinced Wright would be the perfect addition to United’s defence.
“The more games I can go without being noticed the better,” he says. “It means we’re playing well. Obviously, everybody likes to get praise but, because of that, I’d be happy if I wasn’t talked about at all.”