Alan Biggs' Sheffield United column: Hall shines fascinating light into Blades dressing room
If you want to know what things are really like inside a football club’s dressing room an off-the-record comment is always worth far more than anything trotted out for public consumption.
And that’s the beauty of The Star sports writer Danny Hall’s latest book charting the revival of Sheffield United. Not that he’s breaking confidences - just that, from the experience of this reporter, what you see is what you get.
“We’re not going to Wembley” - great title for starters - truly lifts the lid on the story of the Blades’ promotion to the Premier League. Because anyone closely associated with the club and players can tell you they wouldn’t say anything different in private.
It’s the genuine closeness of the bond between them that defines every twist and turn in a story that is riveting by its re-telling even though the history is so recent.
It’s also to manager Chris Wilder’s added credit, as well as Hall’s, that the dressing room opens up in this way.
Yes, it’s far easier to talk in the glow of triumph but Wilder’s charges have also taken responsibility in the gloom of rare defeat.
This is a heartwarming tale of proper footballers playing and behaving in the right way, thereby becoming more closely connected with supporters than I’d guess at any other club in the country.
It’s fundamentally also a major reason why I’m backing United to stay up this season as they close in on breaking their transfer record for the fourth time with the imminent capture of Swansea striker Oli McBurnie.
The recurring book theme is of strong characters and leaders pulling together.
Take this from Mark Duffy: “We’re not just team-mates here, we’re actual friends.” Another reason to hope his personal circumstances change enough for him to be part of such an exciting new venture.
You’d have no trouble prising a similar quote from any number of other dressing rooms, of course. The difference is, from getting to know Duffy and others, you can be sure it’s true rather than trite.
He extended this to the promotion-winning celebrations with fans, saying they were “just one big group” and that “if someone walked in who didn’t know football, they wouldn’t be able to tell who were the fans and who were the players.”
These guys don’t lord it over their public. Take Wilder’s appreciation of David McGoldrick going, in some fans’ eyes, from a belittled triallist to a genuine hero: “What a brilliant attitude he showed ... he wasn’t at all precious about us wanting to look at him for a few days.”
That sort of humility goes a long way with Wilder who, in turn, takes it a long way.
“It’s down to the belief and confidence he has in players,” declares Chris Basham, crediting Wilder with “getting more out of me than any other manager.”
Plenty would say the same, including that career-long predator and talismanic skipper Billy Sharp: “People talk about ‘us’ not ‘me.’ I used to just target 20 goals every season which, looking back, was a bit selfish.”
Man-management applies, by definition, to all types of personality. Extrovert - and exceptional - loan goalkeeper Dean Henderson says of the Blades boss: “Sometimes I feel like I can get away with murder, but he doesn’t let me.
“He’s the only guy, apart from my dad, who gets on at me and doesn’t let me get away with anything.”
There’s room for a laugh and a joke amidst what Basham calls a “nit-picky” attention to detail by Wilder and Alan Knill.
But the management demands the sort of personal responsibility and standards set by the very top players in the game.
Playmaker Oliver Norwood talks of the attitudes he picked up from the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United early in his career.
He says: “It was a real eye-opener to see how these stars worked on the cold, wet December and January mornings when no-one was watching.”
It’s what Wilder refers to as “away from the lights.” Hall shines it where it deserves to be with personal chapters from players including Sharp, Duffy, Basham, McGoldrick, Henderson, Norwood, George Baldock, John Egan and Enda Stevens. There is also an insight from guest fan writers.
If you ignore the ramblings of some writer or other near the end, it’s highly recommended.
* We’re not going to Wembley” by Danny Hall. Vertical Editions (£11.99). Pre-order here