Len Badger can remember every tackle, kick and pass of his first Steel City derby with pin-sharp clarity.
“I was seven years old and it was in the school yard,” he smiles. “Jumpers for goalposts, us versus them, and all that.”
The fact Badger affords those playground knockabouts the same importance as first team fixtures tells you all you need to know about his passion for this game. A former Sheffield United defender and veteran of their 1971 promotion winning side, he still lives, eats and breathes all things Blades. So, as Chris Wilder’s team prepare for tomorrow’s meeting with Sheffield Wednesday, it comes as no surprise to hear him describe what is at stake.
“Everything. That’s what these matches mean. Everything. Winning means the world. There’s no better game on the planet for me and that’s the attitude I know our boys will be going in with. Because, seriously, that’s how big it is.”
Badger, now aged 72, is United royalty after making 457 league appearances for the club across 14 years. Regarded by many as one of the finest full-backs never to play for England, he is still a familiar face at Bramall Lane today.
Wilder, his close friend and confidant, frequently expresses his admiration for Badger during interviews with the media. And, after crediting the 50-year-old with “giving us our identity back,” the respect is clearly mutual.
“I can’t begin to tell you how much admiration I’ve got for the job Chris has done,” he continues. “It fills me with so much pride to go and watch the team play. This is what United are about; honesty, integrity and positive football. Chris knows what we’re about because he is one of us. He knows what we should be.”
“Unfortunately, we’d lost a bit of that before he came in,” Badger, reflecting on Wilder’s appointment at the beginning of last season, continues. “There wasn’t enough straight-talking but Chris tells it like it is. He doesn’t waffle or dress things-up and, let me tell you, that’s exactly what you want as a player.”
Badger draws comparisons between the squad which four months ago triumphed 4-2 at Hillsborough and the one he helped reach the top-flight 47 years ago.
“They work together, drink together and stick together. I can tell, just by watching them play, that there’s more than a similarity. It’s the type of dressing room all of us back then would have recognised because the lads stand-up for each other and look out for their mates. One of the first things I used to do when a new lad arrived was take them out and show them around town. That’s because we weren’t just footballers on the same side. We were all pals as well. You can’t put a price on that, really you can’t, but that spirit is there again now.”
Seventh in the table after being crowned League One champions last term, Badger cites United’s celebrations following that title triumph to underscore his claim they are “a team of the people.”
“Do you know what I loved about that? They didn’t go to fancy clubs or in VIP rooms. They went to normal pubs, mixed with normal fans and stayed down to earth. That’s what we did back in my day because the fans are what makes this club special. They’re the heartbeat of United, what make us great, and they deserved to share in it because they were a part of what happened. You can see how strong the connection is because, even when we’ve lost, they’ve stayed behind to applaud the lads off the pitch. You only do that if you can see a team is giving everything. These boys do and that’s what Chris demands.”
Badger, however, is at pains to point out there is more to the Class of 2018 than attitude and spirit.
“We’ve got some bloody good players, you don’t get the results we’ve had without those and credit to Chris and his staff for bringing them in. They’ve obviously got an eye for talent and the right characters. But one of the things which really impresses me is how they’ve also brought the best out of some of the players who were already here. They’ve given them the coaching, the structure and belief to show what they’re capable of. The environment is right. Seriously, I think Chris has got to be one of the best motivators in the business when you look at his track record but he’s tactically astute as well.”
Cold hearts and calculating heads will prove crucial if United are to ensure Wednesday’s first game under Jos Luhukay’s management ends in defeat.
“Being involved in these matches are something else because you know what it means to the whole city,” Badger says. “I don’t remember the ones I lost, even thought there weren’t that many, because I’ve just blocked them from my memory. But if you win, there’s no better feeling when you go out and about.”