Sheffield United: 'Super star players are only human...just normal blokes like you and me'
Chris Morgan identifies the biggest challenge facing Sheffield United in the Premier League this season, and tells The Star's James Shield why the competition will test Chris Wilder's side in different ways.
Chris Morgan remembers it well; the moment when, having spent the best part of three months being bombarded with warnings about how scary it was, he realised Premier League football was not so frightening after all.
"We came up against Liverpool first," Morgan says, casting his mind back over a decade to the opening weekend of the 2006/07 campaign. "You're stood there, looking at people like Steven Gerrard and Robbie Fowler before kick-off, and think 'Blimey, this is going to be tough.' But we ended up drawing, after taking the lead, and everyone was sat there in the dressing room following the final whistle looking at each other. And we all had the same thought in our mind."
Until Chris Wilder's side gained promotion last season, Morgan was the last Sheffield United player to captain the club through a top-flight campaign. The faces have changed - Billy Sharp and Oliver Norwood now share the armband - and the competition's profile has rocketed too. But the challenges, both mental and physical, remain the same.
Earlier this month, despite watching his team draw with Chelsea, Wilder made an important admission during the post-match interviews. Yes, he insisted, United deserved their point. But before hauling themselves back from 2-0 down, the 51-year-old acknowledged they had appeared a little bit in awe of their opponents and surroundings.
Morgan recognises the situation Wilder's squad now find themselves in. And, like United's manager, he suspects events at Stamford Bridge will banish any doubts, if indeed there were any, those charged with consolidating Bramall Lane's place among English football's elite have about their credentials.
"Basically, it just comes down the self-belief," Morgan explains. "There's always loads of talk about how difficult it's going to be if you've just gone up. Of course you read it and hear it all, you wouldn't be human otherwise.
"The thing is, there always comes a time when you realise, as daft as it sounds, that these great players are only human too. Yes, there's great at what they do. But they've only got two arms and two legs, like you, and you're there on merit as well."
"In our day, it was people like (Didier) Drogba, (Andriy) Shevchenko and (Cristiano) Ronaldo," he continues. "We were there, just normal lads from Sheffield United. Then it dawns on you. These guys are just men. Bloody good. But just men."
Morgan made nearly 300 appearances for United before retiring due to injury, five years after Neil Warnock's side were relegated following the Carlos Tevez Affair. Rob Hulse's broken leg - sustained during another game against Chelsea - contributed too. Petr Cech, the Londoners' goalkeeper, was blameless, But the loss of their most prolific marksman - Hulse had entered the fixture searching for his ninth in 29 outings - proved costly over the course of the remaining eight games. A final day defeat to Wigan Athletic saw United return to the Championship, on goal difference alone.
Now working as an agent following a spell as a coach, Morgan remains one of the most popular figures to wear the famous red and white stripes in recent memory. But with his present guise ensuring he is a frequent visitor to games, the former centre-half is enjoying watching a new set of heroes emerge.
"I saw the match against Leicester City and the boys are doing great," Morgan says. "Okay, so the result wasn't what they'd have wanted. But, other than two brilliant finishes, I didn't think there was anything in it at all."
Jamie Vardy's effort, coupled with Harvey Barnes' memorable strike, condemned United to their only defeat of the season so far. Tenth in the table after Callum Robinson and Lys Mousset stunned Chelsea in the capital, they have also secured a share of the spoils at AFC Bournemouth before beating Crystal Palace.
"The Premier League is tougher but tougher in a different way," Morgan says. "The Championship, I always found, was physically demanding. More so, to be honest, than the top level.
"But the Premier League is mentally harder. Much harder in fact. You can't lose concentration for a second because, if you do, you get punished. So you've got to stay switched on for every single second or risk giving something away. So from a mind-set perspective, the Premier League is much more difficult in that sense. You come off the pitch - and this will be the same for every single player, even those who have been up their all their careers - absolutely shattered."
Morgan's CV - he was one of Warnock's most influential performers when United went up behind champions Reading - gives him an insight into the mental hurdles Wilder's charges will face as they try and build upon their encouraging start.
"When you do it, get promoted, it's actually a bit of a release," Morgan says. "Then, nothing is really expected of you anymore so it's really a case of 'let's give a good account of ourselves and see where that takes us.'
"In a sense, it's actually more relaxed. But there is pressure and it's different. It goes from trying to do what everyone believes you should - get out of the division - to trying to show people what you can do."
Having described the Premier League as a much more mentally demanding competition than the Championship, Chris Morgan highlights events during Sheffield United's last two games as evidence to support his argument, writes James Shield.
Before drawing 2-2 with Chelsea - both of the Londoners' goals, Chris Wilder later acknowledged, could be attributed to defensive errors - another lapse in concentration allowed Jamie Vardy to lay the foundations for Leicester City's win at Bramall Lane.
Although it required a memorable finish from Harvey Barnes to proper the visitors to victory - Oli McBurnie having cancelled out Vardy's opener - Morgan insists: "You can't afford to lose focus at all because of the quality of the people you're up against.
"Take Jamie's goal, for example, when Leicester came here. We were sitting right behind where he hit it and my old man, who was next to me, commented that he didn't realise Jamie was left-footed. I told him he wasn't but that just goes to show the level you're at. If you could only use one word, you'd say that was 'clinical'. The definition of it in fact."
Morgan, who turns 42 in November, captained United during their last season in the top-flight 12 years ago.
Drawing on that experience, he adds: "Back then, there were a few occasions, especially to begin with, where I realised I'd lost my focus a bit. Unlike in the Championship, it usually ended in something happening, either in a goal or someone going close. You'd look back at it, after a striker had nipped in behind you, and tell yourself 'I lost my concentration a bit there, he got in. So you've always got to stay right on it. That's the toughest part."