James Shield's Sheffield United Column: A win over Aston Villa could be the start of something REALLY big
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Not that Chris Wilder is complaining, of course.
But over the summer, when the Sheffield United manager first began to think how his side might survive in the Premier League, I’d be prepared to wager the price of a corporate season ticket - with booze and food thrown in - that he didn’t focus too much on results away from home.
“We must make Bramall Lane a fortress,” was one of his favourite mantras back then. Unfortunately, United’s stadium hasn’t actually turned out to be anything of the sort. Fourteen of the 26 points they have dropped since August have been lost on home soil. Fortunately, amazingly even, United remain unbeaten on their travels.
Despite completing trips to places like Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham who, for all of their recent troubles under Manuel Pellegrini, still named a £45m centre-forward in attack during October’s draw with the visitors from South Yorkshire.
Or, to put it another way, Sebastian Haller cost only a handful of million less than United’s entire net spend during the recent transfer window when he arrived from Eintracht Frankfurt.
In a sense, performances beyond Bramall Lane are the most accurate barometer of the camaraderie and commitment levels within Wilder’s squad.
Their organisation and choreography skills too, given the challenge of facing some of the most gifted players in world football in front of hostile, partisan crowds.
But in order to give themselves the best possible chance of progressing, or even establishing a foothold in the top-flight, (only seven points separate eighth placed United from Southampton in 18th), United will privately concede results in their own stadium must improve.
For both sporting and potentially, with journeys to Liverpool and Manchester City looming on the horizon, PR reasons as well.
Tomorrow’s meeting with Aston Villa, another newly promoted club, would be the perfect time to start.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that United have proven so effective on the road.
After spending the first-half of the year locked in a vicious three-way dogfight with Leeds and Norwich City, where they triumphed last weekend, for one of the Championships top two spots, Wilder’s side entered the new campaign already battle-hardened.
So appearing at places like, say, Stamford Bridge or the London Stadium probably appeals to their sensibilities more than facing Southampton in their own backyard.
Written-off as also-rans, having listened to high-profile figures at Elland Road question both their guts and their nerve during the scramble to reach the highest level, United enjoy flicking a proverbial finger to the critics.
Villa will prove formidable opposition. With Dean Smith expected to spend heavily next month, victory for United would also represent a valuable insurance policy.
It would also help ensure the mood among their support base remains as high as it is now. Because for fear of stating the obvious, that’s where the majority of United fans watch United in action.