James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: Bramall Lane, Stamford Bridge and why Maurizio Sarri should be jealous of Chris Wilder
A week or so ago, during one of my regular catch-ups with an old friend from London, the conversation turned to Maurizio Sarri and his travails at Chelsea.
It was a lively discussion, between two good mates of completely differing opinions, and one which ended with me wondering how football has bred a generation of professionals capable of earning astronomical sums but are seemingly so brittle or precious they must be shielded from public criticism.
I was reminded of our chat again earlier this week, as Sheffield United prepared for tomorrow's showdown with Aston Villa, when researching a piece about Chris Wilder's squad. Given the difference in resources, there is no reason why they should be 11 points and six places above Dean Smith's side. But the fact is they are and, after Sarri expressed reservations about the attitude of his players, I suspect the reason is character.
First, before we begin delving into one of Wilder's favourite subjects, that is not to suggest United's players are more dedicated, determined or talented than those at the disposal of either Smith or Sarri. But I am prepared to wager that the dynamic of the home dressing room at Bramall Lane, where Wilder has been in situ for two-and-a-half seasons, is stronger and more coherent than at both Villa Park and Stamford Bridge, where the Italian's star performer Eden Hazard is busy conducting a very public courtship with Real Madrid.
Would this situation, which must surely be a distraction for the 28-year-old's colleagues, have been allowed to develop at United? The answer, and I can say this with certainty, is absolutely not. Jack O'Connell and John Fleck have both attracted admiring glances from Premier League clubs in recent months but neither have felt compelled to speak publicly about the matter. Even if they had, one suspects Billy Sharp, Chris Basham, Richard Stearman and other senior colleagues at United would have curbed their tongues and made it clear the drip-feeding of messages to the media had to stop.
Not so long ago, the same could be said in West London too. Can you imagine Hazard behaving in the same way if Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack and John Terry, now Villa's assistant manager, were still on Chelsea's payroll? No. He's have been pinned to a wall and forced to take a vow of silence. Which pretty much underlines my point. Anybody can spot talent. So an eye for attitude, an appreciation of inter-personal chemistry, is arguably the greatest gift a coach can have providing they are granted the time and the tools to shape their employers' rosters.
At the beginning of the season, when Villa were beaten 4-1 in South Yorkshire, there were whispers about the behind-the-scenes behaviour of a certain individual on their books. Without naming names, folk with an insight into the former European champions' affairs were briefing journalists the person concerned was effectively influencing tactics and selections by throwing a tantrum whenever they did not suit his own aims. Terry and Smith, appointed one month later, are likely to have tackled the issue within days of taking charge. Which is why, despite their indifferent form, Villa will be a much more formidable proposition now than they were back then.
The fact United have never been forced to take similar action is testament to not only the importance of establishing a coherent recruitment strategy, focusing on temperament as well as skill, but also team spirit. It also explains why, despite the fact they are already under contract, Wilder is keen to see Sharp and O'Connell sign new contracts.