Sheffield United: The meeting responsible for changing the course of John Lundstram's career with The Blades
Six months ago, when Sheffield United seriously began preparing for Premier League football, Chris Wilder and his coaching staff locked themselves in an office to talk through all manner of scenarios.
Would, for example, a team which had overwhelmed Championship opponents be able to do the same at the highest level? Could, without dismantling the system which had helped deliver promotion, they approach matches against Liverpool and Arsenal with the same attacking abandon as, say, meetings with Leeds and Hull City?
After predictably deciding the answer was 'no', the solution they decided upon was to employ a box-to-box midfielder with a physical presence. United scoured Great Britain and Europe for potential transfer targets before the search led them to back to their own doorstep instead.
Despite deploying him sporadically last season, Wilder decided John Lundstram fitted the bill. So, following a series of successful trial runs during United's warm-up fixtures, the Liverpudlian was given an opportunity at the highest level. It is one, as contribution to Saturday's shellacking of Burnley reminded, he has seized in emphatic fashion.
"The system suits him," Wilder said. "It's a slightly different shape. John (Fleck) and Oliver Norwood were the two best players in the division last year for me, when we had two sitting midfielders. But we always knew what John was about. We always knew his qualities, the same as Couttsy (Paul Coutts) before him. He's raised his game over the summer, as we all knew we would have to do. Not just players, but conditioners, coaches and everyone else as well."
Lundstram's rise to prominence - an ever-present, he has already made nearly as many appearances this term as he did during the entirety of the previous campaign - reminds how careers can be hostages to circumstance as well as talent. Always gifted - having started his career at Everton, he represented England at youth level - he was forced to further his development away from Goodison Park with clubs like Leyton Orient, Yeovil Town and Doncaster Rovers before joining Oxford on a permanent basis. It was there, after eventually being appointed captain, where he produced the performances which persuaded Wilder to spend £750,000 to acquire his services. Still, it was not until United reached the top-flight that his strength, energy and, as is becoming increasingly evident, technical ability became an invaluable asset. What Wilder really admires, however, is Lundstram's personality traits.
"I don't think John is bothered about acclaim," he said. "I'm not, if people do or don't talk about him, either because he's an important member of a group of players. There are good players who aren't playing now. Mo (Besic) and Ben (Osborn) are really pushing Flecky and John. That's what we're all about."
"Obviously, when he scores two in the Premier League, there are going to be headlines about him," Wilder continued. "He's not the type of bot who is bothered though. He'll just get on with it. Knowing what the group is all about, he'll be very wary about saying something daft that the rest of the lads or the manager jumps on."
The fact it was possible to mount an argument that Lundstram should not have been named man-of-the-match against Burnley underlined the power of United's performance. Fleck, who claimed their third and final goal of a 3-0 win which saw them finish the afternoon ranked sixth in the table, impressed. So too did David McGoldrick and Lys Mousset who, despite failing to score his third goal in as many outings, produced a superb touch to enable Lundstram to open the first-half floodgates. The Frenchman's running, before he was replaced by the equally spirited Billy Sharp, created so much space for others there were times when it appeared as if United had sneaked an extra couple of men onto the pitch.
"They've had five years in the Prem," Wilder said, paying tribute to Burnley and his counterpart Sean Dyche. "If I'm still here in five years time as a Premiership manager, then I'll be pinching myself. I'm not being disrespectful but they (Burnley) aren't a glitzy, glamorous club. Even at 3-0 down though, I knew they wouldn't throw the towel in and they score the most goals in the last 30 minutes of games because they are always going for it."
"They weren't going to think 'We're 3-0 down' so let's start organising our night out,' were they," Wilder added. "That's not what Burnley are about. They weren't going to go out the back door, they leave through the front door because their attitude is consistent. And that is a great marker for myself and our football club."