If one fixture reveals the challenge Sheffield United faced this season, how they have bucked the trend and beaten football’s financial odds, it is tomorrow’s meeting with Middlesbrough.
The visitors, whose chairman vowed to “smash the league” at the beginning of the season, have since lavished over £50m on new signings and wrote several big cheques during the January window.
Chris Wilder’s squad, which cost less than one of Tony Pulis’ centre-forwards, has been pieced together using intelligence, insight and perspicacity.
Yet, with only four points separating them in the Championship table, John Lundstram believes United’s modest budget has actually fuelled their promotion bid. Because, the midfielder explains, Wilder’s team is determined to prove that a multi-million pound price tag is not the only gauge of skill and ability.
“We’ve all taken a similar route through the game,” Lundstram says. “Most of us have had to come through the hard way if you like and establish ourselves. Obviously there’s a lot of talent all the way through the division but, without being disrespectful, we want to show that just because we didn’t cost a fortune, we can be successful as well.”
Despite starting his career with Everton and winning youth caps for England, where appeared alongside the likes of John Stones, Harry Kane and Ross Barkley, Lundstram fits the profile of a typical United player. Following spells on loan at clubs including Yeovil Town and Leyton Orient, he rejected a new contract in favour of a move to Oxford which, the 24-year-old calculated, would provide him with greater opportunities. Over a hundred appearances and one promotion later, he completed a transfer to Bramall Lane where, despite a frustrating start, Lundstram is now a key figure in United’s plan to reach the Premier League.
“I do think it’s a character-trait of this group, that we’ve all had to work hard and make big decisions to get where we are,” he continues. “Nothing has been given to any of us on a plate. We’re a group of grafters and that’s a good quality to have. Like the old saying goes: Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard.”
As their position on the cusp of the play-offs confirms, however, United are about more than effort and industry. Wilder might bristle at suggestions his side are ‘old school’ but, as it prepares for a match set to shape its season, does acknowledge it boasts a belligerent streak.
“The key has been enjoying the challenge,” he says, explaining why United have adapted so quickly after lifting the League One title last term. “It’s about wanting to prove people wrong and having players who haven’t played in the Championship wanting to establish themselves at this level.
“As a group, we’ve risen to whatever challenge is put in front of us. Sometimes we’ve taken a few steps back. But usually we’ve then come roaring forward.”
Pulis, who was appointed in December, led Stoke City to promotion in 2008 and subsequently established them as a Premier League club. Having succeeded Garry Monk, he has been tasked with performing exactly the same feat at Middlesbrough.
“A manager of great experience,” Wilder, asked for his thoughts on Pulis, continues. “For a British manager to get into the Premier League and then stay there with Stoke, his feats with other clubs in terms of staying in the division, it’s an outstanding career. I’ve got nothing but respect for Tony. To operate at Premier League level for so long tells you what you need to know. The combination is getting you message across to talented players and he’s clearly done that.”
If the prospect of a top six finish is not motivation enough, August’s controversial meeting between the two clubs on Teesside should provide United with even greater incentive when Middlesbrough visit South Yorkshire for the return fixture. Eight months ago, and trailing to a Rudy Gestede goal, they were denied a last minute equaliser when Jack O’Connell’s effort was incorrectly disallowed. United’s sense of grievance and injustice was almost palpable when their players filed disconsolately through the Riverside Stadium’s mixed zone afterwards and, although he will deny it, Wilder will look to tap into that tonight.
“We’re a really tight knit bunch,” Lundstram, who was an unused substitute in the North-East, says. “All the lads have made me feel welcome.
“It was always fine off the pitch. On it, it does take time to adjust, especially in this league. It’s a massive competition and I’m happy to be playing a bigger part in it now.
“It’s never easy to come in and play your top football, at a new club, straight away. Now I’m finding a bit of form in training and also in games.”