James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: This team can continue to prosper because it is built on more than simply an owner’s whim

This Sheffield United team is built on strong foundations
This Sheffield United team is built on strong foundations

It was supposed to be the big old scary Championship.

A division, after six years away, that would chew Sheffield United up and spit them out. A pub team in a proper league as Chris Wilder, his words dripping with sarcasm, likes to remind.

After entering the international break ranked third, only two points behind second-placed Middlesbrough and early leaders Leeds, the United manager's schadenfreude is forgivable after watching many of those who predicted United's demise struggle, flounder or fail. Not least because, having challenged for the play-offs last term, their success can no longer be attributed to momentum. Claims, stemming from tired and cliched analysis, which did absolutely no justice to the club's achievements after cruising to the League One title less than 12 months before.

But the most impressive aspect of United's progress is not results. Rather, as the dust begins to settle on an irresistible display against Aston Villa, it is how they have been achieved: Attacking football with attitude and real intelligence. Or, to put it another way, there is substance behind the progress.

United's work during the recent transfer window, which saw a flurry of activity on deadline day, perhaps highlights this best. In May 2016, after replacing the courteous but diaphanous Nigel Adkins, Wilder and his staff took charge of a club that knew where it wanted to go. The trouble was, as a series of managerial changes suggested, there was no idea whatsoever about how to get there. With every sacking came a shift in approach and, despite suggestions to the contrary, the response to problems on the pitch was usually reaching for the chequebook. Those who arrived, with a few notable exceptions, usually proved expensive flops.

The difference now is startling and clearly much more effective. Oliver Norwood's performances since agreeing a loan to buy deal from Brighton and Hove Albion make a mockery of the fact only United and Hull City were apparently chasing his signature. John Egan improves by the game while Martin Cranie, Marvin Johnson and Conor Washington should also prove shrewd acquisitions, complementing longer-serving team mates who have benefited from good coaching and clearer instructions.

Wilder's assistant Alan Knill and head of recruitment Paul Mitchell, whose contribution behind the scenes is often overlooked, have all played important roles.

Crucially, United are also adhering to a budget. Upgrades, such as Norwood and Washington, are sought but only when those they will replace, Ryan Leonard and Lee Evans for example, are sold.

They might not reach the top-flight this term. They are bound to suffer a number of set-backs. However, because United's development is based on strong foundations and solid principles instead of an owner's fancy, it can continue apace.