If it had been any other centre-forward, Caolan Lavery might have viewed them as a threat.
But the return of his friend and former Portsmouth team mate Marc McNulty means the 24-year-old, who joined Sheffield United earlier this season, is now even more excited about what the future holds at Bramall Lane.
“It’s great to see my old mate Sparky back,” Lavery admitted. “We get on well on and off the pitch so I’m pleased to see him around. He’s a good lad and a really good striker. It’s more competition, more firepower and so that can only be a good thing for the club.”
McNulty and Lavery know each others’ games inside out having worked together at Fratton Park last term. Borrowed from United and Sheffield Wednesday respectively, their partnership helped Paul Cook’s side reach the League Two play-offs after delivering a combined total of 16 goals. Although that did not prevent McNulty being loaned to Bradford City soon after Chris Wilder’s appointment in May, the decision to terminate their agreement early makes perfect sense. Wilder, United’s sixth manager since 2011, knows Lavery is now finding his fitness, form and feet following injury while McNulty, despite seeing his progress stunted by the club’s recent instability, remains a player of immense potential and talent.
“We did well down there, things just seemed to click between us and so, you never know, we might be able to get something similar going here,” Lavery said. “The secret was simple. I did the running and he took the chances. No, joking aside, there was a lot more to it than that. Good communication, that was the reason for the partnership. I think it probably helped that we both hit it off away from the ground too.”
United enter tomorrow’s game against Walsall on top of the League One table, four points clear of second-placed Scunthorpe, with 20 games left to play. Bottom of the rankings in August, Wilder’s squad has enjoyed a dramatic upturn in fortune. But, as the manager acknowledged during yesterday’s press-conference, the road to the Championship is still littered with potholes. Not least because, after winning 14 of their last 18 matches, United are now the team everybody else wants to trip up.
“We’ve got a group of lads who are prepared to roll up their sleeves and fight,” Lavery said. “That’s a good quality to have because nothing comes easy either in the games themselves or in football as a whole. We stick together out there on the pitch and we’re ready to put in a shift for each other. As the manager and his staff are always telling us, there are no days off if you want achieve.”
“We enjoy playing football but we enjoy doing the other side of the game too,” he added. “We can knock the ball around but, if people want to tackle hard, then we can stand up to that and give as good as we get. If not better. You need to have that mindset about you because it’s not all about the ‘nice’ stuff. We like it when we have to dig-in also. We shown, especially recently, that we aren’t going to get bullied out of a game. No way.”
Grafting is something that comes naturally to Lavery who, after deciding to become a professional footballer, left his home in Canada aged just 16.
“I’ve not had it easy and I’ve not been handed anything on a plate,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, no footballer has it easy because you’ve got to go through a lot and give up a lot if you want to become a good professional. “I came a long way from home early on to try and make it. Having to do that has given me the drive, the determination, to try and achieve something. We’ve all got our own stories to tell and that’s mine.”
Lavery’s CV, which includes spells with Alberta’s Red Deer Renegades, Goodyear FC of Northern Ireland and a two year stint on the youth team books at Portman Road, reveals the characteristics which persuaded Wilder to sign him after leaving Hillsborough last term. Ambitious and single-minded - he rejected Ipswich’s offer of a contract when his scholarship expired - Lavery is also a fierce competitor capable of following instructions without someone constantly holding his hand. Exactly the type of player United’s manager, who prefers his charges to be hard-working rather than high-maintenance, likes.
“They (the staff) set the tone and give us the message but I think you need it in you as well,” Lavery said. “If you don’t then I think you are going to struggle. People can only tell you so many times. We get reminders every day in training. If the levels aren’t right then the manager or Knilly (assistant Alan Knill) stop things, call a halt and tell us ‘this is where we were at and we need to get there again.’ Then, once they’ve done that, the intensity shoots right up again. That’s important because, although I know it’s a cliché, you really do train how you play.”
Lavery, who scored his second goal for United during last weekend’s victory over Southend, appears perfectly suited to the tactics and high-press Wilder wants to employ. Although it would be a mistake to make wholesale changes to McNulty’s game, the Scot could do a lot worse than study Lavery’s displays in recent weeks as he competes for a place in this United side.
“I’m pleased with my performances but I know I’ve got to keep on improving and working hard,” Lavery said. “I had a bit of a slow start here for a few reasons that I think people know about. But I knuckled down, got myself into shape and I really feel a part of things.
“All of the lads have been great with me. If you’re not right on top of your game then, because of the quality that’s here in the squad, you are going to struggle to get a game. We all know that but it’s how it’s got to be.”