But Richard Stearman has identified another growing trend in the Championship this season. One with a little more substance, a little more gravitas and, given they are already at the vanguard of the movement, one he believes bodes well for Sheffield United next term.
“There are lots of teams near the top who haven’t spent huge amounts of money. You can see plenty who do but, for the first time in a long while, just as many who don’t. There’s quite a few down at the bottom with absolutely massive budgets. I’m sure they’ll be looking at the business models clubs like us have set.”
Stearman, the former Leicester City, Fulham and Wolverhampton Wanderers centre-half, exudes positivity as he reflects upon recent developments in the EFL’s flagship competition. Yes, he admits, United’s failure to reach the play-offs is a source of regret. However, given their modest budget and lack of second tier experience, the fact they even challenged fills him an immense amount of pride. The trick now, Stearman acknowledges, is ensuring 10 month’s worth of progress does not go to waste. A task, citing Chris Wilder’s coaching skills and creativity in the transfer market, he thinks United are equipped to complete. Even though beating the financial odds, with three well-run names likely to be relegated from the Premier League, could become increasingly difficult.
“Of course it helps but money doesn’t buy you success,” Stearman says. “It gives you a better chance but, looking at ourselves and some of the others who have done well, there are also other ways to achieve. Team ethic, work-rate and good people, something we’ve got in abundance, are also important. Even if you do have the luxury of being able to chuck huge amounts at it, you’re not guaranteed to bring in those.”
“The manager and his staff here don’t have that luxury,” he continues. “Okay, they’ve spent money but not to the same degree as others. So what they do is their homework. They identify dedicated professionals, strong characters who give their all. Who are determined to improve and learn.”
Sunday’s visit to Bristol City marks the end of a campaign which, until last weekend’s defeat by Preston North End, still had the potential to deliver back to back promotions. Stearman’s arrival, during the aftermath of United’s League One title celebrations, was designed to inject some nous and know-how into a squad high on potential but, barring a few notable exceptions, low on savoir-faire. Although an injury in August initially limited his involvement, the 30-year-old has become a permanent fixture in Wilder’s starting eleven. And, having observed his colleagues at close quarters, is convinced United will continue on an upward curve.
“The vast majority of the squad haven’t played many games at this level before. Going forward, everyone will draw on what they’ve learned. I am confident, with the group and the staff we’ve got that, with a couple more additions, we’re going to become even stronger. They way we’ve gone about things, some of the results we’ve got, it will give the lads the confidence of knowing they can perform at this level. They know that, despite all the big names, big clubs and big money that’s spent, we can compete and thrive.”
Stearman, a veteran of the Wolves squad which reached the top-flight a decade ago, insists United already possess many of the qualities and character traits required to emulate that achievement.
“To get a promotion from this level, it takes a lot of the values we have here, sprinkled with a little bit of luck. I don’t think we’ve always had that to be fair. Hopefully that changes next year.
“It also takes an honesty because you’ve got to identify where you need to improve and people here do that. They don’t shy away from things. We’ve taken it to a lot of the big boys and picked up a lot of points. But in a few of the really tight-knit games, we’ve probably seen where we can get better because we’ve been dealt a few sucker-punches.”
One of those was landed during December’s game against City when, despite a rousing second-half display following John Fleck’s sending-off, United succumbed to a 90th minute Aden Flint goal. Now 11th in the table, a place and a point behind Lee Johnson’s side, Stearman is adamant small tweaks, not wholesale changes, are required this summer.
“You always expect a few new faces to come in. I’m sure he (Wilder) has already got his ideas. But, as we’ve shown, the foundations are there. We’re never satisfied but we’ve got a really good platform to push forward from.”