Sheffield United: Why The Blades’ push for the Premier League is a big deal in Australia

Former Sheffield United favourite Nick Montgomery, now of Central Coast Mariners, tells The Star's James Shield how two of Bramall Lane's promising youngsters are progressing after moving to Australia on loan.

Friday, 22nd March 2019, 10:13 am
Updated Sunday, 24th March 2019, 12:36 pm

Most weekends, over 10 thousand miles away in Gosford on Australia's sun-drenched eastern coast, three men get-up at ridiculous o'clock and turn on the television.

It has become something of a ritual for the trio, two of whom would probably welcome an extra few hours' worth of sleep. But, as the other explains, sacrificing their shut-eye means they at least get the pleasure of witnessing Sheffield United's push for the Premier League.

"We've been watching every Blades game, Sam, Stephen and I," Nick Montgomery smiles. "Seeing them do so well is brilliant. Fingers crossed they finish the job."

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Montgomery, the former United midfielder turned Central Coast Mariners assistant coach, requires precious little introduction having spent over a decade at Bramall Lane before heading Down Under. Sam and Stephen, surnames Graham and Mallon, recently joined him at the A-League club after leaving his former team on loan.

The youngsters, who are destined to spend the next four weeks with Alen Stajcic's side, have been on a perilously steep learning curve since arriving in New South Wales two months ago. Their first match, against divisional heavyweights Sydney FC, ended in a creditable 1-1 draw. But after defeats to Brisbane Roar and Wellington Phoenix, manager Mike Mulvey received his marching orders and was replaced by Stajcic, previously in charge of the national women's team.

Given the Mariners reputation for developing young talent rather than relying on a chequebook, Montgomery believes the duo's time with the Mariners should prove an invaluable experience.

"The lads have been great," he says, acknowledging they face challenges both on and off the pitch. "Being young, and coming into what is already a very young team, was always going to be hard. But they really mucked in and worked their absolute whatsits off."

Graham, a physically imposing centre-half, and Mallon, who has been handed both attacking and defensive roles, also started Stajcic's first game at the helm as the Mariners recorded an impressive 3-2 victory over Newcastle Jets. Montgomery, now in his seventh season at Central Coast Stadium, admits their decision to head half way around the world reminds him of when Matthew Lowton, now of Burnley, briefly swapped the Steelphalt Academy for United's then sister club Ferencvaros.

"Lowts always said doing that was the making of him and, 100 per cent, it can have the same impact for Sam and Stephen," he insists. "He was always so calm on the ball, in fact I remember a few of the older boys thinking he was too bloody calm, but going to Hungary toughened him up and made him realise how easy he had it back home in England."

"Living away from your family can really help you mature," Montgomery continues. "You have to grow up fast and learn to cope with pressure when you are on your own. Too many parents mollycoddle players now and it makes them weak in my opinion. If I came home after having a bad game, my parents would say 'don't moan about it, just work harder and make sure you improve.' Now, I see parents calling the coach and complaining their kids have been substituted or insisting they get the same time as everyone else."

Montgomery, now aged 37, recognises the potential difficulties Graham and Mallon face having made the same journey himself six-and-a-half years ago.

"The travelling is always hard but it's important to adapt to the new conditions as quickly as you can. Different time zones and weekly flights can take their toll if you're not totally professional. And, being so far away, means you can also miss your loved ones and friends. But one thing I always enjoyed, even when I was playing, was mentoring younger lads who were coming through the system. I used to try and teach them what it is like to be a professional because, if I'm being totally honest, that's something I see a decline in now."

Which brings Montgomery neatly back to events in South Yorkshire where, after beating Leeds earlier this month, United entered the international break ranked second in the Championship table.

"Too many players have it easy now and pick up bad habits.The likes of Kyle Walker, Kyle Naughton, Lowts, Harry Maguire and Sharpy (United captain Billy Sharp) are all great lads who I tried hard to teach. They knuckled down and you're seeing the benefits of that now.

"All of them are better players than I ever was but hopefully I taught them some things that have helped them along the way. Billy is still doing the business at United and no one is prouder than me to see him banging in the goals for his club right now. He's a brilliant example for any young player to follow. They can pick up so much from just observing him."

As well as being encouraged to watch United in action whenever their schedule allows, Montgomery also treats Graham and Mallon to regular analysis of their performances for the Mariners.

"Every match here is televised so we sit through their individual clips and I ask them what they think about certain things," he says. "Then, I can open their eyes to little details they maybe hadn't seen and that's where they can really learn. I find a lot of players are visual learners so its a good way of teaching them."

Twelve months after joining the Mariners, Montgomery went on record to admit that playing in Australia had changed how he thought about the game. Reminded of those comments, he insists he still stands by them now.

"I really came on tactically and that's something I think Sam and Stephen are going to discover that as well. In England, it can be 100 miles and hour and often boils down to a survival of the fittest, who has got the strongest squad.

"Here, when you're playing in 35 degree heat, you have to do things differently and be a little more clever if you like. If you don't keep the ball, and aren't tactically aware, then you're going to tire pretty quickly and start making mistakes.

"They also play different systems here, focusing on finding those little pockets of space and being good in the transition."

Given the Mariners' modest budget - they spend the minimum amount permitted under competition rules - it could be argued that Montgomery and his employers have a vested interest in persuading aspiring footballers that Australia is a desirable destination. Whether they choose the Central Coast or not, Montgomery hopes more of their contemporaries follow Mallon and Graham's lead. Given the links between the two clubs, and the opportunities on offer, one wonders why the relationship between United and the Mariners has not been exploited more.

"One hundred per cent they should," Montgomery says. "More should English youngsters should try, even for a spell, being overseas. Coming abroad to gain first team football, getting used to different pressure and cultures, can be invaluable in my book. For Sam and Stephen, the only pressure we put on them was the bring the same attitude and standards they have at United. They'll come back better players for what they're experiencing and, most importantly, better people too."

Nick Montgomery, a member of the last Sheffield United team to play Premier League football, has drawn parallels between the 2006 promotion winning squad and the one Chris Wilder has led to second in the Championship.

United enter this weekend's game against Bristol City unbeaten in 10 outings and searching for a fourth straight win after edging past Leeds before the international break.

But it was the sight of Wilder's side overcoming a difficult start to the contest, as Marcelo Bielsa's side threatened to seize control, which encouraged him the most.

"I watched the game there and it was a brilliant result," Montgomery, who joined United's youth programme after being released from Elland Road, said. "They are a really good bunch of players who are all working hard for each other and that's priceless; having people who are prepared to put their bodies on the line.

"That reminds me of what we had back in the day. We all looked out for one another and that's the same as the boys now."

Montgomery, who has spent the past seven years in Australia with Central Coast Mariners, helped United reach the top-flight 13 seasons ago before leaving Bramall Lane in 2012. When Wilder was appointed four years later, they were about to embark upon their sixth consecutive League One campaign following a painful fall from grace. Like many of his colleagues at the time, Mongtomery believes the Carlos Tevez Affair, when West Ham avoided a points deduction despite being found guilty of fielding an ineligible player, was partly responsible for that demise.

"Chris is doing a great job," he said. "Excellent in fact and he has instilled that steel in the team, which was really needed, after a few before him had failed.

"This can be the season when the club returns to the promised land. The Blades and the fans would deserve it because that cloud has hung over the club for too long."

Outlining plans to eventually become a head coach himself, Montgomery added: "When that happens, I will always sign players on their character first. I'll put that before ability. I've seen first hand how good players who are bad characters can ruin any dressing room.

"Low maintenance but high output players are what builds a good team and a good culture. That's what Chris has built at Bramall Lane."

Sam Graham and Stephen Mallon have found themselves in a "unique" situation after joining Central Coast Mariners on loan, according to former Bramall Lane stalwart Nick Montgomery.

The two youngsters, aged 18 and 20 respectively, left Sheffield United on a temporary basis earlier this year after being granted permission to continue their educations with the Australian club.

With teams only permitted to employ five 'visa' or overseas players, the majority of the Mariners' rivals ring-fence a significant portion of their budgets for talent from abroad. But in Gosford, where Montgomery's employers are based, the financial model demands a different approach towards recruitment.

"I told them when they arrived that they were in a unique position, coming over as two visa players," Montgomery explained. "They were both still teenagers at the time.

"Most visa players are experienced internationals who are on the highest salaries in the league. So for them to come in as two inexperienced players, on visas, is not a common situation."

Mariners spend around £2.7m on wages, the minimum amount permitted under competition rules. According to Montgomery, some of their A-league rivals are lavishing over five times that amount on their squads with rules governing marquee players, who are exempt from the salary cap, further complicating the situation.

At the Mariners, where Montgomery is now a member of the coaching staff, the response has been to focus on developing rather than buying talent, although the Australian Football Federation is investigating ways of levelling the playing field in future seasons.

"If you're spending money on marquee players, it also means you've got more money to spend on getting the best Australian players because it leaves room under the cap," Montgomery said. "Currently there are no transfers between clubs either, which means we often lose the ones we have developed to other clubs who can offer them bigger wages."

Despite the problems the system causes for Montgomery and the Mariners' caretaker manager Alen Stajcic, it guarantees Graham and Mallon game-time.

"We've sold more young players outside of Australia than any other team over here," Montgomery said. "That's because we have to play them."

The Lowdown on Gosford:

*The town is located in the heart of Australia's Central Coast region.

*It is 47 miles north of Sydney and, as the crow flies, 10,513 from Sheffield.

*Nearly 170,000 people live there, according to the 2016 census.

*The record temperature recorded in Gosford is 44.8 celsius, measured six years ago.

Sam Graham: The defender, aged 18, signed his first professional contract with Sheffield United in March 2017, after progressing through the club's Steelphalt Academy. Having been loaned to FC Halifax Town and Oldham Athletic, he joined Central Coast Mariners for the remainder of the A-League season two months ago.

Stephen Mallon: The 20-year-old, who can play either as a winger or a wing-back, hails from Northern Ireland but now represents the Republic of Ireland at youth international level. After graduating from Sheffield United's youth system, he joined Graham in Australia on loan after impressing Central Coast Mariners.

Nick Montgomery: The former Sheffield United midfielder has been based in Australia since 2012, initially representing Central Coast Mariners as a player before becoming their head of football and most recently a senior coach. He made nearly 400 appearances for United, winning promotion to the Premier League, after leaving their youth scheme.