James Shield's Sheffield United Column: The one thing this squadÂ should be even more proud of than being top of the Championship
Nearly one hundred and thirty years ago, when Sir Charles Clegg founded a great footballing institution at the Adelphi Hotel, Sheffield was a very different place.
Smoke billowed from the chimneys which dominated its skyline. The smell of sweat and heavy industry permeated the air.
Just over a decade earlier, the world's first floodlit football match had taken place at Bramall Lane. A generation still remembered the Wardsend Cemetary riot, sparked by erroneous rumours of a body snatching operation, together with the birth of the UK Alliance of Organised Trades; an important forerunner to the Trades Union Congress. Folk in the city worked hard, played harder and always had a go. Especially if authority, or the established order, were the target of their ire.
But Sheffield was not simply built on back-breaking work. It was a creative hub too. Harry Brearley, a supporter of the team Clegg had founded, invented stainless steel at Brown Firth Research Laboratories. United's present co-owner, Kevin McCabe, recently paid for a plaque to commemorate the great man's memory at his old retirement home in Torquay.
This gesture, made when an approach to those now profiting from Brearley's discovery shamefully fell on deaf ears, is not the only nod to history United have made in recent years. Chris Wilder's squad, who entered the international break on top of the Championship, might not hail predominately from South Yorkshire. But managed and captained by two local lads, they play in a manner which reflects both the spirit and character of this great region.
United's rise to the summit, no matter whether they stay there or not, has been a triumph of skill, personality and planning over pounds, shillings and pence. They might not possess the glamour of Aston Villa, the deep pockets of Middlesbrough or a big name in charge like Leeds. But, while many of those in the national media salivate over Marcelo Bielsa's work at Elland Road, a much more fascinating yet largely untold story is developing less than 50 miles away. One where, despite its relatively modest resources, a side is presently leading a division regarded as the most competitive in Europe employing supposedly ridiculous things such as over-lapping centre-halves and two centre-forwards.
The statistics surrounding United's season make for mighty impressive reading: Eight wins from 12 outings and 21 goals, nine of those coming in the last four matches, scored. Only Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea have averaged the same number of points per game since mid-August.
But the most pleasing aspect of United's campaign so far is not their results or league position. It is the fact both have been achieved, in an era where most clubs represent them in name only, playing a brand of football which pays tribute to their surrounding area and community.