Sheffield United: Danny Webber sees similarities between Chris Wilder’s promotion-chasing squad and the Class of 2006
Second in the table with eight matches remaining and jockeying for position with their arch-rivals Leeds, the parallels between Sheffield United's latest bid to reach the Premier League and the one which last delivered top-flight football to Bramall Lane are uncanny.
Chris Wilder is aware of them. Danny Webber, a member of the squad which clawed itself out of the second-tier nearly a decade-and-a-half ago, recognises the similarities too although, having now retired from the sport, no longer feels bound by the same professional protocols as his former club's manager. Indeed, as he surveys the state of play in the Championship following the international break, Webber believes United will be privately contemplating the bigger picture ahead of their meeting with Bristol City this weekend.
"Everybody outside of the dressing room knows what the situation is," he said. "So the lads inside it definitely know. But at this stage, it's like that game you played as a kid where you couldn't blink first. Even if your eyes were burning, you just wouldn't let yourself do it. The prize on offer is too big.”
Thirteen years have passed since Webber's goal, against Cardiff at Ninian Park, effectively secured United's place among the game's elite. The visitors, then under the command of Wilder's predecessor Neil Warnock, entered the fixture boasting a nine point advantage over their neighbours from Elland Road. Twenty-four hours later, when Kevin Blackwell's side could only draw with Reading, it had stretched to an unassailable 11. Cue what Webber describes as "manic" celebrations at United's training complex and also on London Road.
Just one month earlier though, the momentum had been with Leeds. Remembering how Warnock's squad fended-off their challenge, Webber draws comparisons between the Class of 2006 and the group Wilder will lead into battle on Saturday afternoon.
"You have to be a certain type of person to wear the Blades shirt and really own it," he said. "Put simply, it takes b***s. I remember first arriving and I genuinely didn't realise the size and the intensity of the place. We had a group of proper blokes who were all good players but down to earth and prepared to roll their sleeves up. That's what I see at United now as well. That collective it important, together with the desire to do whatever it takes to get what you want."
Webber, who started his career at Manchester United, uses events towards the end of the 2005/06 campaign to explain exactly what he means. One in particular stands-out for the 37-year-old, who made over 120 appearances in South Yorkshire after being signed from Watford.
"I remember every bit of the game against Cardiff," he admitted. "Even shaving my head in the hotel beforehand because it was sweltering. I also remember being awful until putting that goal away. Kabbs (Steve Kabba) and I put some music on but there was a definite tension because it's impossible not to realise what's potentially at stake.
"Earlier on, I'd missed a chance and Neil Cox, who I'd played with at Vicarage Road but was with Cardiff at the time, told me 'You've blown it Webbs.' We knew we were close and the hardest bit is getting over the line but I just thought 'Okay, I'll show you.' Then, when Cameron Jerome made the mistake that put me through, I found myself one on one with him and, because we'd worked together before, I knew what Coxy was going to do. He did, he backed off, and that created just enough space for me to put the ball away."
"The funny thing was Kozzy (Rob Kozluk) sent Kevin Blackwell a text straight away afterwards telling him 'You aren't catching us'," Webber continued. "Actually, he'd been doing it all the way through the year, right from the second game, trying to get inside his head.
"Leeds had been coming up on the ropes and saying how they were going to catch us. I can still remember reading that. But genuinely, we never thought about them or the rankings because that would have been a negative. All we focused on was us and making sure nobody was going to take it away from us. We didn't get distracted by the grand scheme of things until it was all over. Thank God we didn't because seeing what it meant to people was something else. Even now, I can be sat in the car and a memory will just pop into my head."
The statistics behind United's season so far make for impressive reading. They enter the meeting with Lee Johnson's men unbeaten in 10 outings, averaging 2.3 points per game since the turn of the year and searching for an eighth successive clean sheet after beating third-placed Leeds 13 days ago. Yet, as Wilder's opposite number will testify, fortunes can change in an instant. After winning nine on the spin earlier this term, Johnson's men make the journey north outside of the play-offs and without a victory in six. It is the type of untimely hiccup which explains why, despite United's recent run, Wilder has been reluctant to tempt fate by speaking publicly about their ambitions.
"The two dressing rooms I've been in that match the club's personality are Manchester United and Sheffield United," Webber said. "There were rules and the players who came in bent to them, not the other way around. No argument or exceptions.
"That's going to be the case at United now, especially with Chris and the skipper Billy (Sharp) being United fans. They'll be setting the ground rules, making sure everyone knows what United's identity is all about. At Sheffield United and Manchester United, you either follow the rules and follow the identity or you fall by the wayside. There’s nothing in between.
"I don't think it's any coincidence, with that mindset and identity, that United are doing so well. It breeds a connection within the group and also one with the terraces. That's vitally important. Seriously, you can't put a price on how the supporters can drag you through. That's what happened with us, when we had a few little stumbles, they helped us deal with it and get back on our feet.
"The week before we went to Cardiff, we were struggling to beat Hull at the Lane. We were drawing but labouring to get past a team we felt we should have been beating. Right at the end, whenever we went close or were awarded a corner, The Kop was on its feet. That just gave us the belief to keep going and eight at the end, Unsy (David Unsworth) stuck the ball away to give us the result."
"There's going to be pivotal moments and they might not be obvious at the time," Webber, citing Chris Basham's effort in West Yorkshire two weekends ago, added. "You need difference-makers for when those come along, even if you're not playing well or if you're having to dig in, they're going to present themselves."
City make the journey north ranked ninth and with doubts about the fitness of Callum O'Dowda who missed the Republic of Ireland's Euro 2020 qualifiers against Gibraltar and Georgia due to injury. The midfielder, who had initially been selected alongside United's John Egan, Enda Stevens, Scott Hogan and David McGoldrick, was among Johnson's most influential performers when City edged past Wilder's men at Ashton Gate in September.
"Lazer sharp focus is what's needed now," Webber said. "That's what got us up and that's what can get the lads there now. And I tell you what, the feeling of doing it is better than the thought. Those are memories, recollections of great times, that will live with me forever. I hope it works out for the lads now the same way too."