Sheffield United: ‘When I look around the dressing room I know everyone there has got my back’
Tomorrow, when Chris Wilder delivers his final instructions and Sheffield United's players steel themselves for battle at Villa Park, Chris Basham will take a moment to glance around the dressing room before returning to his thoughts.
It is a ritual he performs ahead of every Championship game. But, with United now in the midst of a promotion battle, the defender finds it an even greater source of comfort.
"Everyone is pushing for a place," Basham explained. "And that brings real competition which is only a good thing. If you're starting, you know someone else is there lurking over your shoulder who can come in and do the job. That's means you've got to perform. But the best thing is, and I think this is vital, is that everyone still wants exactly the same thing and nobody thinks they are better than the group. People have got your back out there."
Third in the table, three points behind leaders Norwich City but with a superior goal difference, United's new-found strength in depth could prove crucial against an Aston Villa side which, despite some indifferent results of late, can still call upon the likes of Albert Adomah, Glenn Whelan and Tammy Abraham.
Although Scott Hogan, signed on loan from Dean Smith's side, is ineligible for selection, Wilder was still wrestling with some "tough calls" yesterday as he looked to decide his starting eleven.
United drew the corresponding fixture last season 2-2, thanks to two goals from Clayton Donaldson. Despite finishing the match in a creditable seventh place, an analysis of Wilder's bench then compared to the one he could select this evening highlights the evolution of his squad.
Ben Heneghan, Daniel Lafferty, Caolan Lavery and Samir Carruthers featured among United's replacements for that match. Fourteen months and three transfer windows later, with all four now on loan with League One or League Two clubs, Gary Madine, Kieran Dowell and Richard Stearman can expect to be substitutes if Wilder sticks with the same line-up that beat Bolton Wanderers five days ago.
"Last season, we were pushing but maybe, if you look at our bench now, perhaps that core strength wasn't there," Basham acknowledged. "This is the strongest group I've known since being here and, if you look at the subs, I think the gaffer has got a little bit of everything."