Sheffield United: Why The Blades will not repeat one of the biggest mistakes newly promoted sides often make
A little over 12 months ago, as an encouraging but ultimately fruitless season drew to a close, Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder showered praise on Fulham after watching them deliver a masterclass of passing and movement against his side at Craven Cottage.
Never a good loser, even at the best of times, he might have grumbled about why Aleksandar Mitrovic was content to play in the Championship. But having got that complaint out of his system, the 51-year-old marvelled at the opposition's fluidity, cohesion and ability to find time and space in areas where, to the naked eye, it seemingly did not exist.
One year on, with Fulham now relegated back to the Championship and United celebrating promotion back to the top-flight, Wilder is not alone in wondering where it all went wrong for a squad which appeared equipped to establish itself at the highest level. His analysis of events in West London, where a £100m close season spending spree destroyed not only the system which had hypnotised visiting teams but spirit behind the scenes too, are set to shape United's own strategy in the market when the transfer window reopens.
"We have to bring a few in," Wilder said. "But we will not take a wrecking ball to it.
"Recruitment is something we work hard at. We are not lazy with that. The journey of Mark Duffy, Enda Stevens and others shows, I think, what can happen if you put the homework in. I have said it all week, there are some great stories in this group."
As Wilder highlighted following last weekend's draw with Stoke City, a result which confirmed United's second-placed finish, there is plenty for those journalists now acknowledging the club's existence to get their teeth into this summer.
But, in the business of creating results rather than heart-warming narratives, Wilder and his staff also believe it would be a mistake to dismantle the group which, according to midfielder Oliver Norwood, has been a "breath of fresh air" in terms of its tactics and approach. Norwood, previously of Brighton and Hove Albion, is a veteran of Fulham's play-off winning campaign after moving to the capital on loan and was among those cast aside when the PL's broadcasting and solidarity payments began flooding into their accounts.
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Although United will make a handful of carefully chosen purchases, there is a commitment inside Bramall Lane's bootroom not to change United's identity. Nor, with the likes of West Ham and Albion courting some of their players in recent months, are there any concerns about the ability of many of those already in situ to perform at the highest level.
"Duffy is from Prescot Cables, he started out there, but will be playing at Anfield as a Liverpool supporter," Wilder said." Jack (O'Connell) out of Brentford reserves, Flecky (John Fleck) and Norwood with three promotions. The skipper Billy (Sharp) and United fan and David McGoldrick not having a club at the start of the season; these are all great stories.
"They deserve the right to step out on to these grounds. But, as always, you can’t be sentimental about it. We have to improve as a team and play smarter. We have to all up our game, from staff to players.
"But we will not take a wrecking ball to it. You have seen a couple of examples this year when things get smashed apart and then it is constant trouble."
Although United could choose to bring in one experienced old head to help a dressing room with little top-flight experience make the transition, the majority of their acquisitions are expected to focus on players with potential and, crucially, a point to prove. The likes of Brentford's Neal Maupay - Wilder has made no secret of his admiration for Griffin Park's talent identification system - and Swansea City's Oliver McBurnie fit the profile he, assistant Alan Knill and head of recruitment Paul Mitchell have devised.
"Those players, the lads who went to Stoke, have a lot of spirit about them," he said. "But, hopefully,we can add quality to that group."