Sheffield United: Showing League One spirit can defeat former Premier League champions Manchester United
Earlier this month, as he reflected upon Sheffield United's start to the season and climb to fifth in the Premier League table, John Fleck made an admission which revealed both the catalyst for their results since returning to the top-flight and how, despite rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names in football, Chris Wilder's players remain relatively untouched by the trappings of success.
Manchester United's squad, who visit Bramall Lane on Sunday, spend their free time socialising in the VIP rooms of up-market restaurants shielded by private security and club bodyguards. Fleck and his colleagues are more likely to be found rubbing shoulders with other customers at a branch of a well-known cafe chain located in a busy shopping precinct just off Ecclesall Road. It is a reminder, although top-flight status has demanded some changes to their schedule, that United still employ many of the same methods which powered their climb out of the third tier only two years ago.
"We’re still alright to go out for a coffee but that spirit’s always been there since the manager came in," Fleck, a member of the team Wilder steered to the League One title during his first season in charge, said. "There are good characters, good people, and I suppose that’s something the manager looks at when he’s signing players, it’s not just how good they are technically, the character is a big thing here and we have great characters in the dressing room."
Admittedly, representing one of the world's most followed and heavily scrutinised clubs means Ole Gunnar Solskjær's side are probably glad of the chance to relax and unwind away from prying eyes or mobile camera phones. So although Fleck's comments reveal both the gulf in stature and profile between United and their nameksakes from the North-West, the midfielder's words also underline the scale of the hosts' achievements since being promoted from the Championship. At this stage last term, Wilder's men were preparing to face neighbours Rotherham at New York Stadium. Twelve months on they are unbeaten in five and above their next opponents in the rankings. Even though Harry Maguire, the former United defender and Solskjær's headline summer signing, cost more than all of Wilder's purchases during the recent transfer window combined.
"Maybe at the start there was that first bit of doubt but over the last few years we’ve deserved to get promoted so we deserved to be in the league we’re in," Fleck said, acknowledging United had been a little apprehensive at the beginning of the campaign. " Now it’s about trying to stay there."
A degree of stage-fright was probably inevitable given that four of those likely to start against Manchester United also played under Wilder during his debut campaign.
Although Fleck is one of the elder statesmen in United's dressing room, the Scotland international admitted he prefers to lead by example while others provide more vocal encouragement. Billy Sharp and Chris Basham, two players Wilder inherited, are among those who ensure the spirit of 2017 remains intact.
"I’m pretty quiet myself, to be honest, I don’t say much," Fleck said. "People like Sharpy, Jags (Phil Jagielka) and the experienced players and Bash who’s been here for a while tend to lead that. They’re big characters who keep people on their toes. That’s the way it’s got to be here."