How memories of facing the Old Firm are helping one Sheffield United star prepare for battle with Chelsea and beyond
He talks about leaving Derby County, the challenge of learning new formations and how fellow wing-back George Baldock has been a source of encouragement and advice as he attempts to master the strategies, tactics and systems Chris Wilder likes to employ.
But it isn’t until the conversation turns towards his time in Scotland, where he completed two loan spells with Aberdeen, that Max Lowe begins to reveal the qualities which earned him a move to Sheffield United.
“The intensity is pretty high up there, much higher than I realised before going or most people would probably expect,” Lowe admits, reflecting upon his time in the Granite City. “The fans are always on top of you and I’d have people coming up to me whenever I went out to the shops, letting me know that no matter who we were playing we simply had to win. Looking back, that was really something good for me to experience. It gave me a good grounding and, seriously, I’d advise any young player trying to make their way in the game to consider spending a period up there.”
Lowe speaks fondly about his stints at Pittordrie, answering questions with alacrity and enthusiasm as he speaks via Zoom. Now aged 23, and having agreed a four year contract with Wilder’s side in September, the defender made 42 appearances for Derek McInnes’ team after heading north of the border two seasons ago. But it was the ones against Celtic and Rangers, arguably his former club’s fiercest rivals, which are expected to prove invaluable over the coming weeks. With Baldock suffering a suspected hamstring strain during Tuesday night’s win over West Bromwich Albion, Enda Stevens a doubt and Ethan Ampadu unavailable for selection against his parent club Chelsea this weekend, Lowe could be set for a prolonged run in United’s starting eleven as they continue their push for Premier League survival.
“Playing them is something I’ll never forget,” Lowe continues, remembering his 10 encounters with the Old Firm, which included a Scottish FA League Cup final against Celtic at Hampden Park. “It’s a goldfish bowl, it really is, and those are memories I’ll never forget for the rest of my career.
“That, before the final, was when I first came to understand just how big football really is, about how intense the media can be and how the spotlight can really fix on you. It taught me a lot and really helped me develop, not only as a footballer but also as a person because you have to be able to cope with all of that and still go out there and do your job.
“We played really well that day, we couldn’t have done any better in fact. They beat us 1-0 but I ended up marking James Forrest, who is one of Celtic’s best players, so my levels had to be right up there. That was another thing that day, and those matches in general, really rammed home to me - about how you couldn’t switch off for a second because of the quality on the pitch. And that if you did, there were going to be consequences. It was different to what I’d probably been used to before.”
Barring a surprise change of shape or miraculous recovery by Baldock, Lowe will have to demonstrate similar powers of concentration again when Thomas Tuchel’s star-studded squad rolls into town on Sunday evening. But after a defensive crisis saw him pitched into action earlier this term, facing both Manchester City and Chelsea soon after following his former County team mate Jayden Bogle to South Yorkshire, Lowe, whose only previous experience of top-flight action came north of the border, is used to being thrown in at the deep end. Outlining the reasons behind his decision to sign the duo earlier this term, Wilder acknowledged Lowe had been recruited to “develop” and “nurture” rather than be called upon straight away.
“You have to be ready to take your chance when it arrives, you never know when that’s going to be, so I knew I had to be switched on from day one,” Lowe says. “It helped having Jayden here, because we were two mates walking into the same situation. But one of the first things I noticed was how friendly everyone was and how the ones who had been here a while went out of their way to help us and make sure we settled in.
“Sharpy (Billy Sharp) is obviously a legend here, and he’s always really positive about the place, pulling me to one side. Then there’s Phil Jagielka, who knows the club inside out and has been at the highest level for most of his career, playing for England so many times. He talks to all of us defenders and lets us know what’s what. It’s great to have that expertise to draw on. I remember watching him on Match of the Day when he was at Everton. Jags also has an aura about him whenever he speaks.”
Lowe, whose middle name is Josef - “My mum just likes to be different” - played the majority of his football in a flat back four after making the first of his 48 outings for County, where he progressed through the youth system.
With United battling for survival at the bottom of the table - despite winning five of their last seven matches in all competitions, they find themselves 11 points adrift of safety - Lowe is also pleased to reveal that Baldock and Stevens have also provided invaluable insight into how he should operate within a system which revolves around enterprising wing-backs and overlapping centre-halves; despite the fact he is in competition with the latter.
“I think that tells you all you need to know,” Lowe says. “Not only about them but also about the mentality here, about how everyone is ready to help everyone else. That gives me real confidence we can get out of this.”