Sheffield United: How Rangers and Old Firm pressure is powering the push for the Premier League

“You want it,” he says, slowly nodding his head to emphasise the point. “People think you don’t but actually you do, because who wants to be involved in games that don’t have anything riding on them?”

Friday, 11th February 2022, 3:30 pm

Forty years in football have taught Stuart McCall all about pressure. Particularly the eight he spent at Rangers as both a manager and a player.

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Those lessons, which helped him win 10 major trophies including five Premiership titles, are likely to prove invaluable now. Sheffield United, where McCall was unveiled as Paul Heckingbottom’s assistant during November’s behind the scenes reshuffle, are scrambling for promotion from England’s second tier. And with seemingly half of the division also involved in the race, including tomorrow’s opponents Huddersfield Town, even the slightest slip or smallest of missteps could have serious consequences.

“We’re delighted to have that pressure,” McCall says. “The worst thing that could have happened to us all, when we came in, was not having a chance of getting into the play-offs or anything like that because then things would have been so flat.

“So the pressure is something we’re embracing and pleased is here. Listen, at a club like Sheffield United, there’s always an expectation. Quite rightly so. But it’s not just an expectation from the outside. It’s one from inside the camp as well. As managers and coaches, there is an expectation to get the best out of the group because the quality is definitely here. So we should be doing what we are doing. If we didn’t have the right group, well that’s different isn’t it. Importantly, there’s good experience in that bunch as well. They’ve shown that by how they’ve reacted to the odd little set-back.”

DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE

Defeat has never been an option in the west end of Glasgow. Or the east end either, where followers of Rangers’ arch-rivals Celtic back their club with equal devotion and fervour. It takes a special type of person to survive in the Old Firm, let alone prosper. McCall did both, making 265 appearances and being inducted into the Ibrox Hall of Fame before returning for a brief spell in charge towards the end of the 2014/15 season. Intriguingly, reflecting on his time there, McCall attributes that longevity to how he coped with losses. It is something he has been reminding United’s players of this week as they prepare to make the journey to the John Smith’s Stadium. Even though, McCall insists, that isn’t something Heckingbottom’s squad is contemplating ahead of the meeting with Carlos Corberan’s fifth placed side.

Stuart McCall (right) with Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“The good thing about the Old Firm, as I was telling our academy director Del (Geary) the other day - a big Celtic man as everyone knows - is that whenever we had an away game at their place coming up I always knew I was in for a nice win bonus. Oh, and that you don’t win any medals for beating Rangers in February. Those get handed out at the end.

“But seriously, dealing with pressure is a mentality thing. It’s about maintaining an equilibrium. It’s about, when you’re on a good run, not getting too carried away. Or if you get beat - which listen, as much as everyone likes to pretend otherwise, happens - that it doesn’t have to be the end of the world so long as you react in the right way. I know it sounds boring but, genuinely, it’s true.”

RUNNING THROUGH QUICKSAND

United travel to West Yorkshire in a rich vein of form, winning seven of their nine league outings since Heckingbottom took charge. Wednesday night’s victory over West Bromwich Albion, another team vying for play-off qualification, was their fourth in a row and avenged August’s 4-0 reverse at The Hawthorns under Slavisa Jokanovic’s stewardship.

The Old Firm is one of the fiercest rivalries in world football

Despite that run, however, trying to climb the Championship table is a bit like running through quicksand. Six points behind sixth-place when Jokanovic was forced to relinquish control, United might have cut that gap to one. But they have only risen to 10th in the rankings. Still, as McCall reminds, United’s fixture schedule means they will begin cutting through that traffic if they continue to win games. After visiting Town, fellow contenders Middlesbrough, Blackburn Rovers and Nottingham Forest are all on the agenda before the middle of next month.

“There’s so many groups going well at the moment, lots of people are finding a bit of form,” McCall admits. “Fulham, they’re top for a reason and Bournemouth, if you look at the business they did in the window, you’d think that will carry them through. But behind them, everyone is also doing well. So genuinely, it’s just about picking points up because if you keep getting those points, eventually you will get there.”

“It’s all about mentality,” he continues. “I tell the younger lads ‘Don’t go on social media too much’ because, when things are going well, everyone will be telling you you’re this and that. When you’re not, the opposite happens and that’s a distraction. You can’t say don’t go on, because it’s human nature to look if you know people are writing good things. But flip that around, it brings the wrong pressure.”

THE BLADES’ BIG WEAPON

Stuart McCall, Paul Heckinbottom and Jack Lester - Sheffield united's head of player development: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

McCall made nearly 90 appearances for United during a playing career which also included stints with Bradford City and Everton; helping them reach the 2003 play-off final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. Omitted from the starting eleven, the absence of his knowledge and experience was later cited as a factor behind United’s 3-0 loss to Wolves.

“The good thing here is that there’s so much of both,” McCall insists. “People like Chris Basham, John Egan, Oliver Norwood and John Fleck who have all been involved in huge games before and also gone up with United. I’ll try to help them out with little bits of advice. But they know what they’re doing anyway. They know all about pressure and how to handle it. because they want it.”

Ibrox, the home of Rangers: Ian MacNicol/AFP via Getty Images
Bramall Lane, the home of Sheffield United