Kean Bryan hopes to continue his remarkable Sheffield United journey by reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup
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Instead a brief wave of the hand, directing him towards the end of the pitch where those in the starting eleven were about to start working on systems and set-pieces, was how the Sheffield United manager told Kean Bryan the moment had come.
“I’d be lying if I tried to pretend I wasn’t nervous,” the defender says, describing how he realised he was about to make his Premier League debut against West Bromwich Albion. “We were training and you start to get little suspicions about how you’re going to line-up because of what the staff are asking you to do.
“It was in the back of my mind a bit. But I didn’t really think anything of it until we started doing the shape drills. There was no big reveal or anything like that. That’s when I knew and I was really happy.
“But there were also nerves, yes.”
Bryan was entitled to feel a little bit anxious. After all, November’s match at The Hawthorns would see him realise an ambition he had held since enrolling on Manchester City’s academy programme 13 years earlier.
Although it ended in a narrow defeat for United, with Wilder’s players somehow conspiring to lose a game they controlled almost from start to finish, Bryan did enough to warrant further opportunities; going on to face Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United - scoring the first of two goals which delivered a famous victory - before facing Chelsea last weekend.
Helping United reach the quarter-fials of the FA Cup - they face Bristol City in the fifth round at Bramall Lane tomorrow evening - would be the latest landmark of what has been a remarkable 12 months for the defender. His partner, actress Brooke Vincent, recently announced she is expecting their second child while this time last season Bryan was preparing to face Doncaster Rovers in a League One fixture at the Keepmoat Stadium after being loaned to Bolton Wanderers.
Despite failing to make a senior appearance for City during his time at the Etihad Stadium, spending time rubbing shoulders with the likes of David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne helped prepare Bryan for his big break at Bramall Lane. Patrick Viera, previously City’s Football Development Executive, was a particular influence and responsible for turning Bryan from a box to box midfielder into a centre-half.
“One of the biggest helps for me back then was definitely Patrick,” he remembers. “He believed in me from really early on and made me captain of the development team at a really young age, letting me look after the dressing room and be the leader on the pitch.
“The advice he gave me was really simple. He sat me down once and told me that a lot of young players don’t look after themselves right off away from the game; that they don’t always eat or sleep properly. He told me that I had a great opportunity and so to make sure I did those things.”
“Being there, I was around great players every single day so that made the whole Premier League experience a little bit easier I guess, looking back,” Bryan continues. “It didn’t faze me too much, because I’d been training once or twice a week with them since I was 15. The first time was around Christmas, the Spanish and French lads had gone home for a bit, and the manager, it was Roberto Mancini at the time, wanted some of us to work with the ones who were still here. That really helped and meant that, while I was obviously nervous, the thought of playing top-flight football didn’t scare me. It was an opportunity to play in a great team, with a great bunch of lads and under a great manager.”
Bryan has been an ever present in the competition for United this term, helping them secure their first win of the campaign at City’s neighbours Bristol Rovers before beating Plymouth Argyle last month.
“When I came here, I had to wait a little bit longer than I would have liked,” Bryan, who made only four appearances for United during his first two-and-a-half years in South Yorkshire, says. “But I understood why. When I came here to begin with, I was up against Jack O’Connell and he was someone I really looked up to even before that. So I knew it was going to be tough and the rhythm of the defence here was so good, it was a major factor behind us going up later that season, how could I complain that the manager didn’t want to break it up? I know I wouldn’t have.”
Despite hoping to reach the last eight of the tournament for the second time in as many years, United have found results hard to come by in the league this term. The victory over Rovers was their first since finishing ninth in the table last season. Despite entering the meeting with City in encouraging form, Wilder’s side remained at the bottom of the table and 12 points adrift of safety after being narrowly beaten by Thomas Tuchel’s side.
Confessing it was his mistake which presented the visitors with the penalty Jorginho converted after United had drawn level following Mason Mount’s opener, Bryan is hoping to make amends when Dean Holden’s men travel to South Yorkshire.
“They’re a good team from the Championship, so we know we have to be at our best,” he says. “We’re in a good place mentally at the moment and the manager has told us he wants us to carry that momentum on. Not many players can say they’ve been involved in an FA Cup quarter-final and that’s something I want to do. It won’t be easy but every single time we’re out there, we’re giving everything to win.”