Sheffield United: Why John Lundstram might be the new poster boy for The Blades' Premier League campaign
Three years ago, when Chris Wilder was still moving his belongings into the manager's office he had inherited from Nigel Adkins, Sheffield United found themselves languishing towards the foot of the League One table after being thumped by their namesakes from Southend.
Thirty-six months later, 1097 days to be exact, they are rubbing shoulders with some of biggest and best names in the business. It has, Chris Wilder once again acknowledged following their win over Crystal Palace, been quite a turnaround.
So it was fitting, as Bramall Lane staged its first top-flight contest since 2007, that a player who many people suspected would be heading for the exit door scored the goal which ensured this famous old stadium enjoyed a winning return to big-time football.
At the end of last term, while United's Peroni-fuelled promotion celebrations were still in full swing, John Lundstram probably feared the worst too. After all, he had made only 12 appearances as Wilder's squad blazed a trail out of the Championship. And two of those had come in knockout competition.
But the midfielder has enjoyed a renaissance every bit as dramatic as the club where he earns a living. Lundstram, whose second-half strike was reward for another whole-hearted performance, is now threatening to become a permanent fixture in United's starting eleven,
"I sat down with John just after we'd gone up and told him 'don't think this is it for you,'" Wilder said, tracing the Liverpudlian's remarkable upturn in fortune back to a hitherto unreported conversation. "Quite the opposite, it was a chance, we reminded him, to really show what he can do."
Although there have doubtless been times when Lundstram has frustrated Wilder, the manager has always been fiercely protective of a player he signed from Oxford following United's League One title winning campaign in 2017. Journalists who questioned his contribution, often echoing sentiments expressed by supporters, have grown accustomed to being challenged to back-up their line of thinking. After being fixed with the type of glare Wilder usually saves for match officials he believes have been guilty of badly wronging his team. Perhaps now we are beginning to understand, following Lundstram’s equally effective shift against AFC Bournemouth a week earlier, why.
Context is important. Given the challenges they are likely to face over the course of the season, there is an argument Lundstram actually brings more to the table at the highest level than he did in the second tier when, more often than not, United looked to overwhelm opponents with wave after wave of ferocious attacks. Now, with matches often akin to games of chess, Wilder requires a physical presence in the middle of the park to give his more creative performers room to breathe.
"John is a proper box to box kind of bloke," he continued. "He gets around the pitch and he puts himself about.
"But he can play too. When he first came in, with Paul Coutts being here and everyone knowing how important he was to us, I think it was difficult for John. When Couttsy broke his leg, and then came back, John had all that to contend with on top of everything else. But he's always been important to us and he gives us a bit of power, too, in an important area."
Gareth Southgate, the England manager, was among the crowd that witnessed Lundstram put Palace to the sword with a clinical second-half finish following Luke Freeman's clever little cameo. Freeman, on for the injured John Fleck, darted into the area as United's policy of stretching the action begin to take its toll on the visitors' rearguard, before testing Vicente Guaita with a low drive across the box. When the Spaniard failed to gather, palming the ball into Lundstram's path, the Liverpudlian did the rest. Cue an explosion of noise inside the stadium. On the touchline, as pandemonium erupted around him, Wilder gave a knowing nod of his head.
"We had to get the balance right, the shape of the team," he said. "I think we did that."