Kevin Gage's Sheffield United Column: Why Blades' battling point at Chelsea might just have shown fans, players and manager that they REALLY belong in the Premier League
Firstly, here’s a confession.
Nothing too serious – and I’m not going to be arrested or publicly shamed, I hope - but I’m sure many thousands Blades, wherever they were watching and listening, can put their hand on their heart and will own up to feeling the same.
At 3.45 pm last Saturday, having watched Sheffield United’s first half display at Chelsea and going in 2-0 down, I could see no way back for Chris Wilder’s team. I would have taken that as a final score there and then. After all, we were playing Chelsea… at Stamford Bridge.
One of the best sides not only in England, but in Europe. In the past 10-15 years they have won just about every trophy there is to win. Two weeks ago they were playing Liverpool in the UEFA Super Cup final, for God’s sake. So, no, I wasn’t confident of getting anything from the game at all, except for a bit of pride maybe and to not get beat by four or five goals. I believe in this team and this manager, but at half-time on Saturday, I believed we’d lose.
It’s at times like these that managers and coaching staff really can affect players’ attitudes and states of mind and those few minutes in the relative calm of the dressing room – when players are set reflecting on, what’s just gone plus half a thought to what is to come - become vitally important. It’s when, quite frankly, managers ‘step up to the plate’, to coin a phrase.
Now, I’ve no inside info on what was said, but from interviews and reports after it seemed that a brief sharp verbal volley at Dean Henderson, and our central defence for some uncharacteristic errors, was enough about what had already gone. The focus was rightly on what was to come. And, I wonder if Chris, (hand on heart time again) truly believed that his side would perform to the extent that they did in the second half. Surely, he couldn’t have seen that second-half display coming, because I certainly couldn’t and anyone who says they could is quite frankly lying!
That’s not to say we were terrible in the first-half either, by the way. We did OK. Chelsea were bright and quick going forward and created a few decent chances, but we had arguably the best one when Callum Robinson headed wide from an excellent Chris Basham cross. We were 2-0 down due to our own failings, as silly defensive errors have proven to be very costly in this division (NOTE: look out for next week’s article that will delve a lot deeper into defensive areas).
But once again we were struggling to get the attacking side of our game going as per previous matches, and giving away needless possession at times. As players individually, and therefore collectively as a team, we seemed to lack belief.
Now if you’re chasing a game at half-time, then an early goal in the second-half certainly helps the cause and a brilliantly worked goal it was too, with a clinical finish from Callum to make up for his earlier miss. The goal invigorated every Blade in the ground, both on and off the pitch, and set the tone for a quite wonderful 45 minutes of football - which, considering the occasion, the surroundings, the quality of the opposition and the scoreline at the break, must rank as one of the best displays of football under Chris Wilder’s reign.
And considering the previous three seasons we’ve witnessed, that’s quite some statement I’ve made. But I’m not alone in enthusing about our display. The reports I’ve read over the weekend talk of Sheffield United ‘dictating’ and ‘dominating’ the second half. One respected journalist from a high quality newspaper used the word ‘onslaught’. The TV media were united (pun intended!) in their praise as we found our rhythm and our ‘front foot’ feet, and took the game to Chelsea. They had a chance, a good one actually, but in goal normal service was resumed and Deano saved it.
Up the other end, Callum was looking a different player, with his darting runs and shots at goal. He was now looking like the player I’d seen on YouTube clips when he’d destroyed defenders, with his direct running and sharp shooting. His first Premier League goal had seemingly given him belief too… though importantly, it was belief in himself.
As we built up our head of steam, you suddenly felt the tide was turning and I sensed we could actually get that unlikely point. Into the fray came another striker, and after his impressive cameo against Blackburn, we let him off the leash in his familiar Premier League surroundings. The ‘Moose’ was on the loose and we all immediately saw just why Lys Mousset had made so many sub appearances for Bournemouth in last couple of years!
He is the perfect ‘impact sub’! Six foot of pace, power and physical prowess, with good feet and technical ability to go with it. One electrifying run down the right, followed by the presence of mind to cut the ball back into the box rather than hopefully cross it showed he’s an intelligent footballer too. Much more please Mr Mousset!
The equaliser came, of course, and though an 89th-minute own goal doesn’t really do the good build-up it justice, we’ll happily took it! Cue scenes of huge celebrations as Blades everywhere jumped for joy at the unlikely point! It’s just one point of course, on the long road to achieve about 35 more in order to stay up, but I think this particular point is a crucial one in our season.
Yes, it’s a Premier League point, but it also has another meaning, As I genuinely believe that for all the players in the United squad, it will be a turning point… and here’s why.
In any walk of life, in any new job or environment, it takes a while to find your feet, to accept that you ‘belong’ and to realise that your own personal skills – whether they are with your brain, hands or feet – are good enough to cope with the tasks in hand. Believe it or not, footballers are no different!
Phil Jagielka apart, virtually all our squad haven’t experienced Premier League football and so would have approached this season with a degree of trepidation and maybe even a touch of fear. I’ve no doubt that, even if outwardly confident, all the players would have had the voices in their head: “Am I good enough? Can I cope?” and lots more besides. How do I know this? Well, ‘Been there, done that’ adequately answers that question, so indulge me as I roll back quite a few years from my own personal football career.
In August 1986, having risen through three divisions in four years, Wimbledon FC, with a certain Dave Bassett as manager, found themselves playing in the top flight, then simply named Division One. None of us in that squad had ever had even ONE minute of top division experience, and even though we believed in ourselves and our football qualities to a certain extent, you never really know until you are in the heat of the battle and fully tested in that environment.
With Wimbledon, we found our feet quickly, believed in what we were doing, and after five games we’d beaten Villa, Leicester, Charlton and Watford and were top of the league! We went on to beat Manchester United home and away, plus register memorable wins at Anfield, and Stamford Bridge! My point is, after a few games, I realised that I could cope in the top division against some of these big-name players and teams, and my confidence in both my ability and the collective ability of my team mates grew with it.
Fast forward over 30 years and I sensed that during the second half at Chelsea, our Bladesmen truly came of age as Premier League players as the confidence seemed to ooze through the team. They seemed to believe that they belonged. All of a sudden they were composed and calm on the ball, working the ball around opponents, tricking their way past them when the opportunity arose.
We stepped up and came forward defensively too, as when faced with runners behind and around, we stood our ground, intercepted and challenged. In that second-half we looked like we’d been in the Premier League for decades, not four games! It really was that good. The goal and the point was a nice bonus, but to be honest I’d have been feeling the same about our second-half performance regardless of the final score. And this was against Chelsea remember… at Stamford Bridge. WOW!
I think we got over a big hurdle on Saturday. It was the hurdle with ‘BELIEVE’ stamped across the top. In fact, not only did we get over it, we cleared it with room to spare! There’s a few more to get over yet mind, and no doubt we’ll have to scramble over some along the way. The Moose may even just run straight through one or two as well, but after Saturday, I genuinely now believe that we’ll get over enough to see us OK.
So, I believe, the fans believe, and I know the manger has always done so. After last Saturday, if they didn’t before, the players should believe too.