Sheffield United: How a bitter personal experience taught George Baldock not to be distracted by talk of international football
He knew the question was coming. England or Greece?
So displaying the attention to detail which has enabled him to become one of the Premier League's best wing-backs, George Baldock had already prepared an answer. One, for reasons which quickly became obvious, steered the conversation in another direction instead.
"I can qualify for both," he said, taking care not to express a preference for either country. "It is all in the future and I don’t really think about it to be honest. It would be proud moment either way if it happened, but at the minute, I am focusing on doing best for Sheffield United. Nothing more, Nothing else."
It speaks volumes, both about his displays this season and rapid improvement, that only three years after playing third tier football, Baldock is being touted as a potential international cap. But together with his team mate Jack O'Connell, the former MK Dons academy graduate has heard his name being mentioned in conversations about who else from Bramall Lane might follow in Dean Henderson's footsteps and force themselves into Gareth Southgate's squad. Or, thanks to one of his grandparents, the side John van't Schip hopes to resuscitate following a disastrous Euro 2020 qualifying campaign. Given their results in Group J, where only Liechtenstein have fared worse, the Greeks might be advised to send a scouting delegation to South Yorkshire on Monday and watch Baldock in action against Arsenal.
If they do, and he produces the type of performance which saw him help trouble Liverpool last month, the 26- year-old will still refuse to discuss his chances of a call-up for fear of upsetting Chris Wilder. Baldock knows, from bitter personal experience, that is not a good idea.
"It is the stance you have got to take if want to play for this manager," he continued. "Any outside distractions aren’t best welcomed by this manager. You keep grounded and working hard and see how far it can go.
"I remember once when I played at Derby and I didn’t do something he wanted me to do and came down on me like a ton of bricks. Then I went out in the second half and played really well, it's sink or swim isn’t it? You get on with it, listen to the manager and go from there."
Listening to Baldock talk about Wilder is particularly instructive. Indeed, as he sheds some light on the relationship between United's commander-in-chief and his players, Roy Keane's recent comments about life under Sir Alex Ferguson and Brian Clough spring to mind. Both, he admitted, had ferocious tempers. But a look of disappointment was worse because, Keane admitted, he did not want to let them down. According to Baldock, Wilder has created a similar type of atmosphere since taking charge of United.
"This manager says how it is. He is an honest guy and speaks truth and never lies to you. If he’s happy, he will tell you and if he is not, he’ll tell you too. It is the best way to be as everyone works so hard for him and will run through a brick wall for him because he's so honest.
"I think that is the best way and you know where you stand and if he wants you to be better, you have got to be better. It is refreshing to see and I love playing under him."
That culture of openness is just one of the reasons why, after returning to the top-flight following a 12 year absence, United have prepared for next week's fixture 13th in the table. A goalless draw with Watford, during the final round of matches before the international break, ensured they remained the highest of the three newly promoted clubs and above the point per game average which usually, but not always, guarantees survival.
Another factor behind United's transition is the excellent Henderson. The goalkeeper, whose loan from Manchester United was renewed during the close season, made several key saves at Vicarage Road only a week after making a high-profile error against the visitors from Anfield. That slip, which presented Liverpool with a win even Jurgen Klopp later admitted they scarcely deserved, prompted a public dressing down from Wilder which, although the purpose was lost on some, Baldock explained was further evidence of his man-management skills.
"I have heard a few things," he said, referring to suggestions in some sections of the media that Wilder had crossed an invisible line. "But you look a week on and talking about the Dean Henderson situation, this gaffer works with us six or seven days a week, week in, week out and knows us as characters. He bought us in based on our ability, but also characters. He knows the type of people we are.
"You look at Hendo a week on and he was man of the match at Watford and has done it time after time and come back roaring after a little blip. It is credit to them both. And Hendo is so mentally strong. It is no surprise to me he has come back roaring."
"The gaffer just demands standards," Baldock added. "It is refreshing sometimes to know where you stand. He will be the same with me and has done it with me and you just come back stronger."
Because they live in the same block of flats, Henderson and Baldock plan to spend Saturday afternoon watching the score flashes from across the country inside the latter's living room.
"I am sure Hendo will be up with me watching a game. You can’t get away from it, especially the Premier League. You want to be involved in it and will be probably watching Sky Sports News or whatever game is on."
The scheduling of United's latest outing means the table could have changed dramatically by the time they face Unai Emery's squad. But Baldock, despite acknowledging going first helped them pip Leeds to second place in the Championship, does not believe psychology will decide the contest.
"I am not sure, it might be a bit different," he said. "Certainly, last year we had a case of where we were always playing before rivals, maybe it had a psychological edge, I am not sure. But at this stage of the season, it is not a problem. It is exciting times, Monday night football in front of the lights. At this stage, you are not too worried about other results and we will go in there full of confidence and look to put in a performance."
Running leaders Liverpool so close has given United the belief they can beat another of the competition's most iconic names. The fact they are playing at home, in front of a crowd which certainly seduced Klopp, has heightened Baldock's sense of anticipation.
"I love playing at Bramall Lane, " he said. "Since I have been here, the fans have been different class and are always getting behind boys and obviously they have the connection with the players, manager and (captain) Billy (Sharp). It just all feels like you are all in it together and it is brilliant to play in.
"It was a really confident showing from us (against Liverpool) and arguably we went toe to toe with one of best teams in world at the minute. You don’t achieve what they have by luck, they are a top-class team. To go toe to toe with them was really pleasing and gave us a lot of confidence and we want to take that into Arsenal."