Sheffield United have got the bottle to win the battle for Europe - and here's the proof
Ask Chris Wilder to identify what he looks for in a footballer and his answer is always the same.Ability? No one turns professional if they lack the necessary talent. Which is why Sheffield United’s manager prefers to focus on “attitude”.
What he actually means is commitment. The desire to win tackles, headers and races and be the very best that you can be. It is something United’s players have demonstrated countless times in recent weeks. It also explains Wilder’s unwavering conviction in their capacity to cope with the coronavirus crisis.
“The teams that do well,” he predicted ahead of this month’s return to action, “Will be the ones who are together and want to get on with things.”
Seventh in the table after being promoted last season and only five points outside the Champions League places, no one should have been surprised to learn that United were among the most enthusiastic members of the ‘Project Restart’ bloc. Their next 10 games, starting with June 17th’s assignment at Aston Villa, could see a squad tipped for relegation at the start of the season qualify for Europe instead.
With the suspension of the fixture calendar curtailing their momentum, however, United have been forced to accept a series of compromises. Preparation time has been limited after nearly three months out of action and, given there are 92 matches remaining on the schedule, recovery time between contests will be almost non-existent. Already assured of their character, it is the enthusiasm his team has shown to embrace these challenges which encourages Wilder. While others complain about what is being asked of them and bleat about the threat of injuries, those under the 52-year-old’s command accept it is a price worth paying in order to get back out on the pitch. Even though, given the speed of their ascent through the divisions, United are probably less equipped to deal with difficulties the situation presents than many of those around them in the rankings.
Oli McBurnie, the former Swansea City centre-forward, provided an insight into his colleagues’ thinking when he detailed their work at the Steelphalt Academy - a rudimentary, by top-flight standards, training complex located on a windswept hill in Sheffield’s northern suburbs.
“We’ve been doing all the horrible things associated with our job and none of the good stuff - actually playing and taking part in games,” he said. “But that’s fine, we’re happy to do that, because if you aren’t then you won’t get anything out.
“To begin with, it was just running, running, running and a bit more running. And let me tell you, I much prefer being able to work with the ball. It’s a means to an end though, and that’s why I’ve actually been enjoying it in a strange sort of way. It tells me we’re not far away from getting back out there now, that we’re building for something. All I want to do, and all the rest of the lads as well, is play football.”
If Wilder’s suspicions are correct, mentality is going to be crucial over the coming weeks. Only those who are 100 per cent committed to seeing the campaign through will prosper given the gruelling itinerary.
“If it means going into a hotel for six weeks or whatever, then that’s what we’ll do,” George Baldock, the United defender, said - confirming his own determination to complete the 2019/20 programme. “I’d do it and I know the rest of the lads would as well.
“We’re footballers. We play football. That’s what we’re in this for. It wouldn’t be forever and of course everyone would much rather be with their friends and families. But we’ve worked hard to give ourselves an opportunity and we’re not going to just give that up. I know everyone here is ready to do whatever it takes.”
The same, Baldock’s team mate Oliver Norwood has revealed, applied during lockdown. In March, at the height of the pandemic, United’s players were forced to work-out at home after being issued with individual fitness plans. When they reported back for duty last month, and were weighed and assessed in the flesh rather than punching their statistics into a laptop or tablet, Wilder was delighted to discover every single one had been followed to the latter.
“I actually think we’re fitter now than when we went into our last game (against Norwich City) in March,” Norwood said, before outlining why. “Trust me, the sessions we had to do were tough, probably tougher than what we go through in pre-season. Everyone has done them though, because we knew we’d be coming back at some stage and we wanted to be ready.
“If you cut corners, then you’re not going to give yourself the best possible opportunity of doing something are you. That stands to reason.
“We know what’s at stake. We want to take the chance we’ve got. Whatever happens, nobody wants to look back and think they could have done more. So that’s why all of the boys here have done everything - and I mean everything - they can. Even during that time at home, when admittedly it’s not ideal because you want to see the lads and be with them, nobody has shirked anything. We don’t want to let anybody down by, ourselves, the fans and the rest of the team, by not doing that. It wouldn’t be right and that’s not how we look at things here anywhere.”
Another United midfielder, Ben Osborn, elaborated on that theme after revealing Bramall Lane’s dressing room is the “tightest” he has known in his professional career.
“I’ve never come across anything like it,” Osborn, previously of Nottingham Forest, said. “I know everyone says they’re all in it together. Everyone. Trust me, though, it’s not always the case.”
“It is here, though, without a doubt,” he added. “It doesn’t matter if someone starts every week or has only played a few games. We’re a group and we all look out for each other. It’s brilliant to be a part of, knowing that everyone around you has got your back.”
McBurnie, who until Sander Berge completed his £22m move from Genk during the January transfer window was United’s record signing, echoed that sentiment.
“When the gaffer brought me in, he told me he thought I’d fit in well here,” the Scotland international remembered. “He was right. I don’t mean this in a ‘me, me, me’ way but I’ve always been someone who wants to give everything for the team and my team mates. I’m ready to work hard to create openings for the people around me. That’s what I think being part of a team is all about.
“It’s even better when you know that’s being reciprocated. That the lads you’re out there with have the same mindset. That’s how it is with this group. And that’s why it feels great. I think it’s one of the reasons - not the only one but definitely one of them - why the lads are doing what they’re doing.”
United were unbeaten in six outings when competition ground to a halt; a run which, containing wins over Millwall and Reading, had also seen them reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
“Forget the fact it means we’ve got an even busier run-in,” Norwood said, ahead of their last eight meeting with Arsenal. “We want to go as far as we can in that as well. And I’m confident that we can.
“It’s another chance to try and do something. If you’re a footballer, you want to play football in my book. So why would you complain about having more opportunities to do that? I don’t get it.”
With six of their remaining 10 league outings against clubs also competing for a Champions or Europa League place, United’s psychological make-up is set to be tested as much as their physical conditioning.
“We’re looking forward to it,” defender John Egan said. “This is what we’re in it for, isn’t it. There really isn’t anything to moan about. Nobody saw this situation coming, but it’s happened and so you just do what you do. Everyone has to make sacrifices and there’s people out there who have made a lot bigger sacrifices than we have. I appreciate everyone has a different situation. But I’m a footballer. I want to play football. And I want to try and seize the chance that we’ve given ourselves.”