Sheffield United: The twelfth man is no myth at Bramall Lane
It is one of those questions which has no obvious answer and would still provoke argument if there was.
But, whether it is a footballers’ responsibility to ignite the crowd or the other way around, any team with the backing of its own supporters is usually a more formidable proposition that one without.
Chris Wilder certainly grasps this theory, having made improving the atmosphere inside Bramall Lane one of his top priorities after being appointed Sheffield United manager five months ago. Jack O’Connell, the former Brentford centre-half, is mighty glad he did after identifying home form as the key to securing a Championship place.
“If we can do well in front of our fans then we can get promoted,” he said. “The fans are a real weapon in our armoury, there’s no doubt about that. I’ve seen both sides of it, when they get behind us and when we go through a difficult patch. It’s brilliant at the moment and we want it to continue for as long as we possibly can.”
United will need their followers to be at their terrifying best against MK Dons tomorrow. The visitors might arrive in South Yorkshire having failed to win any of their last four outings but, with Darren Potter, Samir Carruthers and Dean Bowditch among those at interim manager Richie Barker’s disposal, boast plenty of quality within their squad. Karl Robinson, who departed on Monday after six-and-a-half years in post, might have failed to deliver results this season. But 50 per cent of those League One clubs who sacked a manager during the previous campaign won their next game. An already tough looking fixture just got a whole lot tougher.
“You can’t expect the fans to pay money to watch us and then we don’t perform, or at least try to perform,” O’Connell said. “That’s the bottom line. You’ve got to give everything. They’ve stuck with us because they can see we’re working hard. As a footballer, that’s the very least you can do. Put 100 per cent in all the time.”
United will enter the match fourth in the table, unbeaten in league competition since August and a much more streetwise unit than the one which limped to an 11th place finish last term.
A change in attitude under Wilder - they now look to impose themselves on opponents rather than ease their way into games - has been a factor behind this renaissance. A change of tactics, with a switch to a 3-5-2 system, has played its part too.
“The back three has been good,” O’Connell said. “It’s made us more solid and if someone makes an error then there are two others there to bail them out. It also helps our full-backs get forward a lot more. So that’s another benefit. I think there just seems to be a nice balance there.”