John Lundstram provides some clues about his relationship with Sheffield United, as Aston Villa prepare to visit Bramall Lane
Listening to interviews with John Lundstram, for Sheffield United followers at least, is a little bit like scanning through a Dear Jane letter sent by a loved one at the end of a long and eventful relationship.
You know they are leaving. Probably after finding someone new. But there is still the temptation to try and read between the lines, to scrutinise every single word they have written, or in Lundstram’s case uttered, for clues the situation might nor be irreparable after all.
For the past five months, ever since rejecting what Chris Wilder insisted was a final and non-negotiable contract offer from the Premier League club, the midfielder has been teasing its supporters into this type of masochistic behaviour whenever he speaks.
Not deliberately. Lundstram always seems likeable and straightforward during his dealings with the media. Rather it is the fact he still sounds so committed to United, despite being destined to kiss them goodbye this summer, which has lulled many fans into a state of self-denial.
“Definitely, we won’t wrap it in or throw-in the towel,” Lundstram told The Star following Sunday’s defeat by Liverpool, which left Chris Wilder’s side 15 points adrift of safety with only 12 matches remaining. “It comes from the gaffer, he’s got that mentality. Even our training sessions are full blooded sessions. It comes from him, the coaching staff and Knilly. We take that out onto the pitch.
“I think you can see that we’re still giving everything, even though results have been far from what we wanted. I hope you can, because that’s definitely what we are doing. We’re leaving it all out there every time.”
United, who face Aston Villa at Bramall Lane tomorrow evening, are simply marking time. Win, lose or draw, relegation beckons. Mathematically, survival is still a possibility. But their games are being staged in England, not on Fantasy Island. The Championship beckons.
Lundstram’s own career has reached a similar crossroads, with his deal set to expire in three months time. Barring a dramatic change of heart, and probably plenty of grovelling, the midfielder is scheduled to clear out his locker soon after May’s home game against Burnley and sign on the dotted line somewhere else.
Before the start of the campaign, when it became apparent to all and sundry that discussions were not progressing well, Wilder used a media briefing during United’s pre-season training camp in Scotland to remind Lundstram there was “simply no downside” to remaining professional and staying committed.
The statement, plus the fact the player had even travelled north of the border in the first place, was designed to try and stave off some of the criticism Wilder knew would be coming the 27-year-old’s way.
Lundstram has fulfilled his side of the bargain by staying focused and committed whenever he pulls on a United jersey.
Which, with Sander Berge severing a hamstring earlier this term, has probably been more times than he would have expected given the manager’s well-known intolerance of folk who refuse to accept fresh terms or try to change the speed and the schedule of pre-planned negotiations.
Mark Duffy, ruthlessly discarded following United’s promotion from the Championship two seasons ago, can testify to that.
“I think now, it is going to be really tough,” Lundstram conceded, reflecting on events against Liverpool and looking ahead to the meeting with Dean Smith’s squad.
“We’ve just got to enjoy it. We are privileged to be in the position we are in. I was saying to George (Baldock) beforehand, what a massive occasion this was; playing in front of the champions at Bramall Lane.
“We’ve just got to try and enjoy it, get some points on the board and do ourselves justice.”
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s not lads in there laughing and thinking we enjoyed the game,” he continued.
“I’m not in the greatest of moods afterwards. We were giving our all to try and win as I think you could see. We just try and showcase what we can do, and give everything.”
Intriguingly, Lundstram’s comments on how United should approach the situation they find themselves in are peppered with the word ‘we’ - confirming, inadvertently or otherwise, where his mind is at right now.
The former Everton youngster, who moved to South Yorkshire from Oxford soon after United achieved the first of their two promotions under Wilder, clearly remains committed to ensuring the club’s pride - if not its top-flight status - remains intact.
Having batted away questions on his own future soon after Christmas - “All I’m focused on right now is doing my best for us, Sheffield United” - Lundstram’s respect for the manager who gave him his big break also appears undiminished. Despite, it must be noted, the pressure his contractual situation has inevitably exerted upon their friendship.
“He always says we have something to play for, even if it's the last day of the season and we’re 10 points adrift,” Lundstram said. “There is still lots to play for -ourselves, the fans, the badge, the club. There’s always something at stake.”
Villa make the journey north comfortably in mid-table, having won four and drawn one of their last eight outings having narrowly avoided the drop earlier this year.
United are hoping to avoid a fourth straight defeat, after briefly rediscovering their form soon after Christmas.
With an FA Cup quarter-final looming on the horizon, Lundstram warned his colleagues that simply accepting their fate would be a betrayal not only of the blue collar values United have rediscovered since Wilder’s appointment in 2016 but also the ones which enabled them to turn professional in the first place.
“We have all strived to get this far,” he said. “It hasn’t been great this year. But we have to embrace it/. We all strived to be here as kids. We’ve just got to try and embrace it and enjoy the challenge as much as we possibly can.”