Derek Geary knows what it takes to become a footballer.
About the sacrifices, the psychological challenges and, after 10 operations on his knee, the physical scars.
“I always tell the kids that I shouldn’t have got to where I did in the game,” he said.
“I should never have achieved what I did. But I drove myself on so much because I wanted it so badly. I was ready and willing to do whatever it took.”
Geary, the former Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday defender, is now passing on his wisdom to Bramall Lane’s next generation after taking charge of the Steelphalt Academy’s under-18s squad. Chris Wilder, United’s new manager, admitted displine and desire “are big words for me” when he was introduced to the media earlier this month. Geary, a member of the United team which reached the Premier League a decade ago, is cut from exactly the same cloth.
“Attitude is huge,” he says.
“Well, as far as I’m concerned it is and that’s something I always try and pass on. There’s a lovely quote from Franco Baresi, the great Italian legend, where he says ‘football is 20 per cent ability and 80 per cent attitude.’ If he’s saying that, then you’ve got to listen.
“Because he’s right up there with the very best there’s been. Yes, you’ve got to have talent. That goes without saying of course. But it’s not enough on its own. Look at Mario Balotelli for example. Skill-wise, he’s got everything. But he’s not got anywhere near the level people thought he would.”
Geary, aged 35, made 115 appearances for United before retirement beckoned six years ago. Having started his career across the city at Hillsborough, he became only one of only 28 players to represent both clubs following a brief spell with Stockport County.
After a baptism of fire - “I was getting hammered when I warmed-up as a sub” - the fact he was eventually bestowed with cult hero status speaks volumes about his performances in a United shirt.
“I never forget signing,” he remembers.
“The abuse was pretty bad because of where I’d been before. I fully understood but I went back home, I was living with Leigh Bromby at the time, and said ‘what have I done?’ But, do you know what? Winning the United fans over was my proudest achievement in football.
“I always aspired to play in the Premier League, to play for my country. But that was the biggest of the lot. To have the rapport I do with them means so, so much.”
The love Geary now feels from United supporters is recriprocated. And, after impressing with his work on United’s pioneering Futures programme, will underpin his work in the Professional Development League next term.
“When I hear players these days saying ‘the fans are on my back’ I think is it a problem? Look at it as a challenge to win them over.
“If you can’t handle being expected to win every week then don’t play for Sheffield United, go somewhere else.Take that as a compliment because it’s an indication you are somewhere good.”
“If you don’t turn up at Bramall Lane buzzing about the challenge of the fans expecting you to win then you shouldn’t be there. The year we got promoted from the Championship, we we knew we had to try and win every game because we wanted to go up.
“Should we not have been like that? Pressure isn’t bad. It’s good. If you don’t have pressure, you aren’t on the ladder.”
“Messi and Ronaldo have the hardest jobs in football,” Geary continues. “Every day, they wake up knowing they’ve got to show why they are the best in the world.
“Every time they touch the ball, in training, on the pitch or the street, they know people are expecting something special. You’ve got to get comfortable with pressure.”
Geary’s job is to ready youngsters for the ruthless world of professional sport where weak minds flounder and the strong-willed survive. But, outlining his philosophy over coffee in a city centre cafe, he revealed a softer side too.
“I tell the lads, what I can give you is knowledge and experience. I know what it’s like to go to bed the night before big games, what it’s like to get released because that’s what happened to me at Wednesday after I got player of the year.
“I like to think, from the Premier League to League One, I’ve pretty much seen it all. But you’ve got to recognise everyone has a different way, a different personality. I appreciate what was right for me might not be right for somebody else. Everybody needs help and understanding.”
Players and, Geary explains, coaches too.
“I spoke to Nick Cox who was the academy manager here when I got the job and asked ‘why me?’ He said it was because I’d gone to him when I first came in and asked what I needed to do.
“I tried to earn my stripes. A lot of the younger lads here don’t remember me but they know I played for the club and I suppose, these days, you are only ever a google search away. I can help because I’ve done what they are trying to do; represent Sheffield United.”
Geary is part of a coterie of ex-players and United supporters tasked with restoring the club to its former glories. “This isn’t a job for me, it’s an affinity. I speak to Deano (Brian Deane) a lot and ge always tells me he’s played for lots of clubs but he doesn’t have anaffinity with any of them that matches this one. He’s around all the time, helping, and he does that because he loves the place. Kozzy (Rob Kozluk) is the same and I’m the same as well.
“I never forget when I got man-of-the-match once and, when I was walking upstairs, Derek Dooley came to shake my hand. I was in awe of him, Mr Sheffield United, and that’s what why a club having its DNA is so important.
“Leigh Bromby came back the other week and got pulled into the boardroom by (co-owner) Kevin McCabe. He was buzzing because he felt appreciated. And things like that count for a lot.”