Sheffield United: The sense of identity responsible for transforming The Blades
Three years ago, when he burst back through the doors of Bramall Lane after being appointed Sheffield United manager, Chris Wilder was struck by the sense of indifference and fatigue which had enveloped his football club.
As a lifelong supporter and former player, Wilder expected to be confronted by waves of anger and frustration as folk reflected upon a miserable season in League One. But what he discovered was something much worse: a once proud institution sleepwalking towards mediocrity where folk, rather than being exasperated by results, seemed too fatigued and too dog-tired to care.
The solution Wilder devised has been described as shock therapy. A squad which had just finished 11th in the third tier under his predecessor Nigel Adkins was torn-up and rebuilt around fresh new players. But scratch beneath the surface and something else also happened. Together with his assistant Alan Knill and a coterie of trusted lieutenants, Wilder set about ensuring it also had personality as well as lashings of hungry, talented professionals. Nearly 170 games and two promotions later, the wisdom of this approach is there for all to see.
"If teams don't have identity then people don't know their jobs," Wilder said, ahead of Sunday's home fixture against Manchester United. "You'll get cut open if that's the case, there'll be drift and no direction because nobody is really sure what they're working to. Yes we want the lads to have the freedom to be a bit off-the-cuff and express themselves. But if you don't have an identity, then you leave yourself open. There has to be a structure."
Much of the analysis surrounding United's rise through the divisions has focused on their system and tactics. Fifth in the top-flight and unbeaten since September, their pioneering take on the 3-5-2 formation has become a source of fascination. But to fully understand how a team in danger of sleepwalking towards irrelevance now finds itself outperforming some of the biggest names in the country also requires a cultural analysis. It is something Wilder has touched upon in the past, particularly when stressing the importance of the relationship between his side and its supporters.
"There's definite drivers that we have; being selfless and being committed, being enthusiastic," Wilder said. "Togetherness is another one.
"But from a tactical point of view, we also want to be solid and hard to beat. And we want to be physical too. Even though there are unfortunate situations, it is still a contact sport. And when that goes, the game is in trouble. You might have the best players who don't want any contact. Or you might be trying to bridge the gap in a fair way."
Listening to Wilder outline the qualities he expects United to display, it is impossible not to notice how they tally with those which helped create the city as a whole. Built on sweat and steel, it became an industrial powerhouse thanks to the innovation of people like Benjamin Huntsman, Thomas Boulsover, Henry Bessemer and Harry Brearley, whose metallurgical expertise helped bring affordable cutlery to the masses. Wilder's side, with their forward-thinking wing-backs and over-lapping centre-halves, also combine hard-work with imagination and intelligence. In short, they reflect they characteristics of the region. Which goes a long way towards explaining why United's fans now feel more of a connection to their heroes.
"We just pride ourselves on the identity and the desire to work, going forward and also going back," Wilder continued. "It's a group effort, from the front to the back. It has to be. It has to be right. We do a lot of stuff with the ball up here, if you were a fly on the wall. But you'd also be surprised, 60 or 70 per cent of the ball, is going forward."
United plan to attack their namesakes from Manchester when they return to action this weekend, despite Wilder acknowledging the gulf in financial resources and experience between his employers and the visitors from Old Trafford. Despite making an indifferent start to the campaign, Ole Gunnar Solskjær's side make the journey east having won five of their last six outings and with the world's most expensive defender - former United youngster Harry Maguire - in tow.
"We want to take the game to the opposition in a structured way but then, at the top of the pitch, in an unstructured way," Wilder said. "Because if you are going to break open some of the best teams in the division, you need that."