Faster, Higher, Stronger. Sheffield United’s mantra does not quite mirror the time-honoured motto of the Olympic Games, but two out of three ain’t bad.
Faster and stronger, for sure; the athletic aims that have powered the Blades’ resurgence over the past two seasons. Maybe “higher” too in the sense of Chris Wilder’s ambitions for the club – and doubtless his fitness chief could apply that tick in respect of injecting a spring into aerial combat.
Not that you can bracket the footballers of Bramall Lane with the world’s top athletes. But the principles are the same in the way Wilder has added “new school” to the “old school” philosophies that have welded as hard-working and resolute a group of people as you could find in what has become – in some places - an over-privileged and less-than-dedicated environment.
It has meant embracing a couple of words that might not have sat too comfortably in the earthier atmosphere of Wilder’s early years in the game. Sports science. Sounds good but would have left many scratching their heads and mouthing a word beginning with “bull.”
Actually, it’s pretty simple in terms of its aims, even if the methods are more sophisticated. And it all makes pretty good sense because it follows that a team running further than the opposition should have a better chance of winning a match.
Matt Prestridge is United’s “head of sports science” – though his role is far wider in that he is a fully qualified coach, takes part in first-team sessions and is a matchday fixture as number three on the Blades’ bench alongside Wilder and assistant manager Alan Knill.
He is also – remarkably – just 26 years of age, having also (incredibly for his youth) previously worked for five clubs (Watford, Derby, Spurs, Nottingham Forest and Burton) before joining Wilder from Northampton. That’s seven in all.
So here, from a man not so long out of school and then Loughborough University, is the “new school” part of what Wilder famously dubbed “old school, new school” when he was feted at last year’s League Managers Association awards dinner.
This has seen Bramall Lane embracing the GPS tracking devices used across EFL by many – but not all – clubs. United adopted them with a single target in mind, which has worked pretty well so far.
“Have we run more than the opposition?” is the big question Prestridge poses when he sees the results. “For the stats we have, we are pretty much higher than most teams when they play us; we tend to do more.”
There are exceptions. Never losing sight of what the eyes tell you is one – because effort alone does not win a match, just as possession stats can be highly misleading. United have been wrestling with exactly that conundrum in recent times in looking to become more clinical.
Another exception is that, yes, there have been times when United have been matched for running. And guess what, they have lost those matches. Walsall and Fleetwood last season, the 4-5 with Fulham this season, all at home strangely enough.
So Prestridge’s questions, balanced against keeping players fit (which he has, barring serious one-offs that can’t be avoided) are: “How much have they done? How much is that at high intensity? What is the total distance?”
Behind all that lies a manager he describes as “relentless and driven.” Quite an insight.