Sheffield United: The very curious case of John Brayford and the Blades

John Brayford has re-joined Burton Albion on loan until the end of the season
John Brayford has re-joined Burton Albion on loan until the end of the season
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His permanent move to Bramall Lane was greeted with terrace fanfare and social media buzz; his departure, on loan 574 days later, was confirmed via a terse, 120-word statement on Sheffield United’s official website.

”He’s not any full back... he’s John Brayford” became “The Blades have agreed a loan deal for John Brayford to join Burton Albion” and nobody can really say with any certainty what happened in between. The 28-year-old arrived with a bang and, 48 games later, left with barely a whimper.

So, what went wrong? It would be easy - and tempting - to dismiss Brayford as a spent force, a busted flush who impressed so much on loan, and disappointed almost as much after signing permanently.

Others will point to two fairly serious injuries - a knee problem saw him miss 22 Blades games last year, before a “freak” and “nasty” calf injury curtailed his involvement last season - or wonder if Brayford is simply capable of performing under any other manager than Nigel Clough - who had him at Burton and Derby, took him to United and signed him for Burton again.

Whatever the reason, Brayford’s departure - albeit only on loan - has caused nowhere near the reaction it once would have, when he was at his marauding best and seemingly well on the way to becoming a Legend of the Lane.

The Beard, as he’s known to United supporters, was earmarked in pre-season by Chris Wilder as the best right-back in League One and was expected to flourish in the Blades boss’s positive system. But it simply never happened. There were flashes of a positive partnership with Mark Duffy on the opening day at Bolton, but Brayford seemed a shadow of his former self against both Crewe and Rochdale.

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Everybody loves John Brayford - The day he signed for United

He was inculpable in United’s defensive capitulation against Southend but offered nothing going forward, either, and rejoined Burton just days later.

“I expected to see him flying down the wing and creating chances for us,” Kevin Gage, a former United full-back of some distinction, wrote in his column for The Star this week.

“So it was a surprise to see him as the first casualty of our start to the season.

“John hasn’t played anything like we know he can and particularly his crossing, in the past such a feature of his surges forward, has been terribly disappointing and just about sums up his lack of form.

“The marriage seemingly made in heaven has gone a bit sour... and it’s has turned out to be a short-term affair.

“I’m sure he and Nigel will be happy together, and a separation is in everyone’s best interests. I expect a full divorce from us in time.”

Wilder, citing Brayford’s departure as an opportunity to reinvest money elsewhere in his squad, was quick to place on record that the full-back did not seek a move away from Bramall Lane and with his contract in South Yorkshire running until the summer of 2018, that place in United folklore could still be cemented.

But few players go down as legends of their clubs if their level of performance enters a downward spiral, no matter how many tattoos and how fine a beard they possess.

A decent and unassuming bloke, Brayford is in some ways an unlikely footballer and could simply be an expensive, high-profile casualty of United’s poor start to the season. Or, looking more deeply, arrived in South Yorkshire riding the crest of a wave on the way to the FA Cup semi-finals that year and, when such momentum plateaued, perhaps struggled with the expectation of being one of the main men.

Either way, Brayford earned himself a hell of a lot of goodwill from Blades fans on his return.

“People talk about footballers signing at clubs for the money, but there is more to being a footballer than making a few extra quid,” he said at the time, after accepting a substantial wage reduction from his time at Cardiff City.

“For me, it’s about being able to look back on my career and be able to watch, read and remember all the good times.”

The good times have been few and far between of late and it will be fascinating to see how Brayford looks back on this chapter of his career when the time comes to hang up his boots.