How Sheffield United's rapid speed of progress has changed the face of their first team
Seventh in the Premier League table only a season after being promoted from the Championship and serious contenders for a place in Europe next season, it was no surprise when Sheffield United won two of the three cross-club awards handed out by The Star’s football writers earlier this week.
The ceremony, performed via videolink rather in front of the usual sell-out audience at one of the city’s hotels, saw Chris Wilder named manager of the year and his squad receive the team of the year trophy following a remarkable campaign which also saw them reach the FA Cup quarter-finals before coronavirus forced the game into lockdown.
The only category where United did not prevail was the young player section which, despite their recent achievements, will come as a disappointment to a side which has forged an enviable reputation for developing home grown talent.
Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire, the most expensive defender in the world, are among the Steelphalt Academy’s glittering roll call of graduates, together with fellow international David Brooks. Phil Jagielka, capped 40 times by his country and now back at Bramall Lane following a long stint with Everton, also counts himself as a former pupil.
After Wilder outlined plans to reinvigorate a youth system, which has inevitably found it difficult to keep pace with the rapid strides forward taken at senior level, James Shield identifies two players United might have kept had they reached the top flight sooner, one who fell victim to their remarkable progress and four still hoping to make it.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin: The centre-forward was still a teenager when he joined Everton, the club he still plays for, soon after Wilder’s appointment in 2016. It was a sale which, to some degree, suited all three parties concerned with the Merseysiders acquiring a fine young talent for the relatively paltry sum - by top flight standards - of around £1m, United requiring the money to reshape their squad in the new manager’s image and the player himself describing the move as “too good to resist.”
Four years later, with Calvert-Lewin now blossoming at Goodison Park and reportedly being considered for a senior England call-up, it is clear the youngster was probably undersold.
But then again, United used the funds they received to bankroll deals for the likes of Jack O’Connell and John Fleck, who are now mainstays of their Premier League starting eleven. In fairness to Nigel Adkins, Wilder’s much-maligned predecessor, he was among the first to identify the true extent of Calvert-Lewin’s ability.
But his successor, who delivered promotion from the third tier at the first time of asking, needed tried and tested talent at that stage of his reign, not potential. However, Calvert-Lewin would have been a major asset now.
David Brooks: Another player who, with hindsight, United would probably have preferred to mature a year or two later than he actually did. The Wales midfielder made his name with a superb individual display during 2017’s win over Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough; leaving poor Jack Hunt with a bad case of twisted blood following one memorable piece of skill near the touchline.
Unfortunately, despite leading the table at one stage United fell just short in their pursuit of a Championship play-off place that term; a situation which left them vulnerable, given Brooks’ burgeoning reputation, to hostile bids from top-flight clubs.
Wilder, now utterly convinced of the youngster’s ability, had earmarked him for a pivotal role in the attack which, 12 months later, would reach the Premier League. But AFC Bournemouth spotted an opportunity and timed their move perfectly, with Brooks’ new agent helping to negotiate a move thought to be worth in the region of £12m.
Now aged 22, Brooks had blossomed into one of the domestic game’s most exciting young talents before injury stalled his progress on the south coast. Again, like Calvert-Lewin, Wilder would benefit from still having him at his disposal now, despite United’s own achievements.
Ben Whiteman: It speaks volumes about how well the midfielder has performed at Doncaster Rovers that, before United secured their place in the top-flight a year ago, Bramall Lane’s supporters would probably have been crying out for their club to sign him had they not sold him 12 months earlier.
Whiteman made five appearances under Wilder during the manager’s first season in charge at United before being loaned to Mansfield Town and then Rovers, who eventually acquired him on a permanent basis. Hull City lodged a bid, believed to be worth an initial £1m, for the 23-year-old at the beginning of the campaign before Darren Moore’s side had the good sense to hand him a new long term contract.
Blessed with a fine technique, Whiteman probably fell victim to both the speed of United’s progress under Wilder and also the need to drag them out of the third tier following a long spell in League One. But, capable of playing in either an attacking or a box to box role, had he stayed around it would have been fascinating to see how he developed with better players around him.
Unless Rovers can reach the Championship, one suspects they will do well to hold on to Whiteman when the transfer window reopens later this year.
Regan Slater: Wilder clearly has a lot of time for the young midfielder. Indeed, tenacious, well-equipped technically and always willing to make a tackle, Slater might even remind the United manager of himself; despite building his own playing career at the back.
After bursting on to the senior scene by making a crunching challenge on Ipswich Town’s Bersant Celina during an FA Cup tie at Portman Road in 2018 - “He cemented him. That was my personal highlight of the match,” Wilder later said - Slater appeared destined for more game time having previously made his debut during a Championship fixture against Preston North End.
But with United going close to securing a place in the play-offs that term - and achievement which correctly convinced coaching staff they could challenge for promotion a year later - the decision was taken to loan Slater to Carlisle.
Although he did not enjoy as much football there as United might have liked, another loan move, this time to Scunthorpe, was designed to reinvigorate his progress. But an ankle injury has since seen Slater sidelined for long periods.
Sam Graham: Aged 19, any judgements on the speed of the defender’s progress must take into consideration to fact he only seriously took up football in his early teens.
Big, strong and powerful, Graham was placed on loan with Halifax Town and Oldham Athletic after impressing coaching staff at the academy before heading to Australia with Stephen Mallon for a spell with Central Coast Mariners.
Former United stalwart Nick Montgomery works at the A-League club, having moved Down Under after leaving Bramall Lane in 2012. After returning to England, Graham, who has yet to make a senior appearance for United, joined Notts County on a temporary basis but was forced to return after sustaining an injury.
Bound to be a late developer because of his career path, the promise Graham has nevertheless shown suggests he will continue to progress with the right advice, coaching and mentoring. Still a long way off United’s first team but has plenty of promise.
Tyler Smith: Another who has trained with United’s first team squad under Wilder and who has been utilised during pre-season fixtures. Smith, who can be unpredictable on the pitch and has a good turn of pace, impressed during a loan spell with Barrow earlier in his career and was described as a “star in the making” by then Rovers manager Grant McCann after moving to the Keepmoat Stadium on a temporary basis.
With United reaching the Premier League, Smith was placed with Bristol Rovers at the beginning of the campaign. Although that deal was supposed to run until the summer, he left the Memorial Stadium in January and joined Rochdale instead, where he was playing alongside Rhys Norrington-Davies until fixtures were suspended because of coronavirus.
Smith’s latest move is designed to smooth off some of the rough edges of his game before a decision is taken on the next phase of his development.
Rhys Norrington-Davies: Many observers, including those with close links to United, believe the Wales under-21 international could be the next Steelphalt Academy graduate to become a regular starter for Wilder’s team. Particularly given that he is seemingly well-suited to playing as one of the wide centre-halves in the manager’s preferred system of three at the back.
Norrington-Davies has also followed the career path Wilder likes aspiring young talents to take, first being loaned to Barrow in the National League before heading to Rochdale; the club he joined on a season long basis last summer. Clearly, given that United are now pushing for a place in Europe, the hurdles in front of the 21-year-old are getting bigger and bigger.
But should he impress again next term, unless Wilder decides he is best served continuing his development surrounded by Premier League professionals at Bramall Lane, another loan - ideally with a Championship club - would see him take a giant step towards achieving his ambition of appearing at the highest level.
Norrington-Davies was actually born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, before being educated at Royal Russell school - an independent establishment - in south London.