The physical and mental challenges facing one Sheffield United player as, ahead of a crucial Premier League encounter, he attempts to turn himself into a centre-half
Despite flying through the audition, when Sheffield United were successfully navigating their way out of the Championship, Enda Stevens admits that being asked to reprise his role as a makeshift centre-half has brought a fresh series of challenges now Chris Wilder’s side are in the Premier League.
“It’s been difficult,” the Republic of Ireland international says, as he prepares to perform it again at West Bromwich Albion tomorrow night. “There’s a lot more responsibility and, because I’m doing something different to what I’m used to, it requires a lot more concentration too. But it’s not entirely new, because I had a spell here a while back before we went up.”
Stevens and Chris Wilder, the 30-year-old’s manager, though his days of playing at the heart of United’s rearguard were over following that fleeting experiment a couple of seasons ago. But after seeing the club engulfed by a perfect storm of poor form, injuries and disappointing results, the former Portsmouth and Aston Villa player has once more been tasked with helping to anchor United’s defence as Wilder attempts to avoid sacrificing their 3-5-2 system in Jack O’Connell’s absence.
The loss of O’Connell, whose attacking prowess, strength and underestimated passing range makes him such an important part of United’s team, is arguably the principal reason why the well-oiled machine which finished ninth last term now appears in danger of grinding to a halt ahead of its visit to The Hawthorns. Bottom of the table and having taken only a point from their opening nine games of the new campaign, Wilder’s side know anything other than a win over opponents also yet to taste success since returning to action in September will leave them facing an uphill struggle to avoid relegation - even at this early stage of the fixture schedule, such is the unrelenting nature of top-fight competition.
With United failing to sign a direct replacement for O’Connell during the recent transfer window, despite casting admiring glances in the direction of former Feyenoord youngster Terence Kongolo and Preston North End’s Ben Davies, Wilder has been forced to search within his existing squad for a solution to the problem O’Connell’s damaged knee has caused. With Jack Robinson ill-equipped to provide the same thrust from deep and Ethan Ampadu’s athleticism required in midfield, Wilder has again asked Stevens to fill the void - even though coaching staff privately admit this manoeuvre threatens to weaken United in two areas rather than one.
Daniel Lafferty, who made over 52 appearances for United at the beginning of Wilder’s reign, appreciates the difficulties Stevens faces as he attempts to step into the breach created by O’Connell’s fitness issues.
“Physically, there’s a huge difference,” Lafferty, who also occasionally deputised at centre-half despite being a wing-back by trade, explains. “Let me put it like this, you’re not going head to head with a winger who might be five feet 11 inches tall, you’re having to stand toe to toe with a centre-forward who’s probably six foot something and as strong as an Ox. So that’s a big change, right there.”
Lafferty, now of Shamrock Rovers, understands the psychological adjustments Stevens is being required to make too after gaining first-hand insight into the way Wilder demands his United team operates.
“Playing left-sided centre-half for United isn’t like playing a centre-half anywhere else,” he continues. “Because you have to get forward so much, because you’re expected to go on the overlap, it means you’re effectively playing between two or three different positions all the time. It’s so fluid but, if you make the wrong step at the wrong time, it can break down.
“One of the things I quickly learnt was that, if you hesitate for a moment, the entire picture has changed in front of you. And it’s a different picture to the one you usually see anyway, because you’re not out wide - you’re looking at the whole of the pitch. So you’ve got to just play the pass you see and know is right, even if it’s a difficult one. You can’t second guess, because then what you see is different. You’ve got to try and have the confidence to express yourself.”
Playing with freedom is difficult, Lafferty admits, when results are proving hard to come by.
“What I do know, however, is that when you get one, it’s amazing how the confidence just builds,” he says. “I’ve been in that situation before and, trust me, it really does lift the weight. That’s why, knowing some of the boys there as I do, I still reckon they’ll be okay and start climbing the rankings soon.”
Like Lafferty, who left United last year, Wilder is convinced his men will turn a corner soon - reminding how six of the eight defeats they have suffered this season have been by a single goal.
“Moving Enda inside, or whoever, the chemistry isn’t quite what it should be yet with Jack being out,” he conceded following last weekend’s loss to West Ham, which Stevens also missed through injury. “But we’ll get there, because we’ve got good players who have shown they can do it.”
With Ampadu receiving treatment for a hip complaint picked-up during that game, Stevens is expected to feature at centre-half again – if he recovers from a knock – unless the 20-year-old, on loan from Chelsea, is able to provide Wilder with a welcome selection headache.
John Egan, Stevens’ colleague on both the domestic and international stage, is proving a constant source of advice and support.
“He’s giving me a headache, actually,” Stevens says. “He’s always shouting at me, telling me to go here and there, during training and during games. But Ege’s is a top drawer centre-half so he’s great to learn from.”