Going behind the scenes at a Sheffield United training session
Alan Knill was in no mood for pleasantries.
“It’s you, f*****g again,” Sheffield United’s second in command bellowed at one unfortunate player after pausing the training session. “I f*****g told you the other day, get f*****g out wide because I don’t want that area condensed, and if you go in there then you’re f*****g out of the game. Anyway, let’s back on with it now because I’m f*****g boring myself. And you – stop f*****g swearing.”
Today’s exercise at Oriam might have had an expletive ridden soundtrack. But after being granted access to the complex, where United have been based for the past six days, the attention to detail and complexity of their work was immediately apparent. Knill brought proceedings to a halt wherever something wasn’t quite perfect. Every pass, every run, every position those involved took up was expertly choreographed.
A glance at United’s schedule reveals why Knill’s focus was so intense. With seven members of their squad set to report for international duty on Sunday, the workouts Chris Wilder and his staff have been staging at the site, located on the outskirts of Edinburgh and home of Scotland’s high performance athletes, represent possibly the last chance for the likes of Oli McBurnie, John Fleck, Sander Berge and John Egan, to perfect the strategies United plan to employ during the new Premier League season - which begins with a game against Wolverhampton Wanderers on September 14.
“It’s been different this year,” Wilder admitted afterwards, as he reflected on the challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. “We’ve had to be a bit off the cuff, but that’s the same everywhere because of what happened.”
As head of recruitment Paul Mitchell sat pitchside, a mobile telephone glued permanently to his ear, Wilder stood, arms tightly folded, quietly watching the action unfold. The United manager was a picture of concentration, breaking his silence only occasionally to provide some brief observations. Instead, although he became more vocal as the drills grew in intensity, Wilder spent the morning watching, studying and scrutinising rather than orchestrating the event. His assessment, the 52-year-old later indicated, would be delivered over lunch at a nearby hotel before United returned to run through everything all over again.
“It’s not ideal, having all of these lads going away, but that’s the price you have to pay,” Wilder reflected, looking back on season which did not end until last month after being suspended because of the coronavirus. “But it’s because they’re internationals, which means they’re good players."
“Footballers can’t go away now and royally abuse their bodies, like we did,” Wilder continued. “Usually, we’d ease them in but it’s been straight back to it. They’ve come back fitter, because it wasn’t long ago they were playing anyway.”
United, who finished ninth in the table last term, are set to take part in a behind closed doors friendly tomorrow before returning to England for meetings with Derby and Preston. They visited Dundee United on Tuesday, but the match was abandoned at half-time because of bad weather.
“It’s been a rush but we’ll be ready,” Wilder said. “All the way through, we’ve had to think on our feet.”