James Shield's Sheffield United Column: The simple step this team can take to help secure its Premier League status as Chelsea showdown looms
At their very best, and pretty much ever since Chris Wilder became manager four years ago, Sheffield United has always been about more than 11 players working in unison.
The club’s finest moments, including reaching two major semi-finals under his predecessors Neil Warnock and more recently Nigel Clough, were collaborative efforts - a partnership between skilled footballers, coaching staff and most importantly the fans.
This was evident last season when, after gaining the second of their two promotions since the 53-year-old’s appointment, a series of tour de force displays both on and off the pitch helped it finish ninth in the Premier League table, even threatening to gatecrash the European party until the Covid-19 pandemic stalled momentum.
This term, of course, has turned out a little different. United enter tomorrow’s game at Chelsea having lost six of their opening seven matches and drawing the other - against fellow strugglers Fulham - at home. Knowing they are actually performing okay, albeit below their usual high-standards, yet still failing to produce results must be a debilitating, confidence-sapping experience for everyone behind the scenes at Bramall Lane.
This manifested itself last weekend when, after watching his side beaten by the former champions Manchester City, Wilder cut an unusually downbeat figure during the post-game Zoom media conference. His assessment of the fixture, attributing the blame for United’s defeat to his side’s inability to retain possession, was a little harsh on those who, inevitably given Pep Guardiola had nearly £500m worth of talent at his disposal, simply lacked the quality to trouble their opponents.
With a crowd behind them, United might have been more combative. But social distancing measures mean supporters are still prohibited from attending stadia. And as the country sleepwalks its way towards becoming an Orwellian scientocracy, where the Government decides who you can meet, socialise and even sleep with, they probably won’t be back any time soon.
Which from a purely sporting perspective, is a crying shame for United. Because, given that most of Wilder’s team has been sourced from the English Football League, the extra one percent their raucous following is able to eke out of them is probably worth somewhere between eight and 10 points.
Strange times and even stranger problems require unusual, creative solutions. United’s people can’t be with them in person. But they can be in spirit, given the reach of the internet.
Maybe it might be an idea, given they are all in a bubble, to relieve a little of the stress Wilder’s squad is definitely feeling by locking them in a room, ordering five crates of lager, and allowing them to talk face to face with those who would gladly travel to west London and cheer them on from The Shed End at Stamford Bridge.
But there is another, much healthier measure, United can take to try and rediscover their old aggressive and effective selves: Remember they are representing a city and a region sold down the river by national politicians during the current health crisis, sold short by those local leaders who have failed to hold Westminster publicly to account and often treated with the same disregard by the footballing authorities.
United should consider the bigger picture and then go out and stick two fingers up to the establishment.