The psychology behind Sheffield United's remarkable push for European football
He was there before kick-off against Chelsea; loitering inconspicuously near the tunnel as Sheffield United’s players warmed-up for their meeting with the five time Premier League champions.
Three days earlier, eagle-eyed journalists spotted him going through exactly the same routine ahead of the win over Wolverhampton Wanderers too - studying the behaviour and monitoring the body language of Chris Wilder’s team during their pre-match exercises.
Steve Sylvester, one of the country’s leading sports psychologists and a close confidant of the United manager, remained on the periphery of the whole process. But nothing, not a word or a gesture, escaped his ears and eyes.
Exactly when the former professional cricketer, a source of expert advice and guidance during the club’s two promotions under Wilder, re-entered the United fold is not a matter of public record. Neither he nor those he advises at Bramall Lane enjoy making a fuss. But it seems likely, after watching their team make a stuttering return to action last month, that coaching staff called upon his services sometime around the FA Cup defeat by Arsenal - United’s third in quick succession following losses to Newcastle and their namesakes from Manchester.
Two weeks later, as they prepare for tonight’s trip to Leicester City, everything has changed. Wilder’s squad finished the latest round of fixtures in seventh and, after beating Tottenham Hotspur, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Frank Lampard’s men, back in the race for European qualification and bursting with confidence.
“I was thinking right before the game against Chelsea ‘I really fancy us today.’ Then I thought ‘This can’t be right’ because of all the top names they’ve got,” Ben Osborn, the United midfielder, remembered as he reflected upon the 3-0 sacking of the visitors from Stamford Bridge. “But then, the more you look into it, it’s the way the gaffer and Knilly (assistant manager Alan Knill) set us up.
“We know we are most likely going to work harder than the opposition. We know we have quality too. Most of the teams we come up against have got outstanding individuals but, if we work together and lock them down, then we realise we’ve got the ability ourselves to do something.”
The precise details of Sylvester’s role in United’s resurgence - after also drawing with Burnley, they travel south unbeaten in four - are a closely guarded secret. But it can surely be no coincidence that the 51-year-old, who outlined some of his methods in a series of interviews with The Star earlier this summer, appeared on the scene around the time Wilder’s side finally appeared to grasp the challenge of excelling, thanks to the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, behind closed doors. His presence also confirms that descriptions of Wilder’s methods as “old school” are wide - well wide in fact - of the mark.
“There’s a real intelligence to everything we do here,” Osborn, a summer signing from Nottingham Forest continued. “If you speak to any of the players we come up against, they’ll tell you it’s really tough. Not just in a physical sense, It’s the shape that we take up.
“I’ve been on the receiving end of it a few times, before I actually came here, and trust me, it’s not nice. There’s a lot more going into what we do than just effort. But that bit - effort - is non-negotiable too.”
Wilder’s relationship with Sylvester stems from his own interest in how a footballer’s mind works. Osborn, who despite being one of United’s most influential players of late endured a slow start to his career in South Yorkshire, explained how the likes of him and Jack Robinson, who impressed at centre-half during Jack O’Connell’s recent struggle to overcome injury, have benefited from this fascination.
“The gaffer has been a player himself before, so he knows it’s tough when you’re not actually out there every week,” Osborn admitted. “It’s difficult, but you can’t feel sorry for yourself.
“What happens here is that they (Wilder, Knill and coach Matt Prestridge) do extra work with you, just to make sure you’re not drifting by. You actually end up doing more than the lads who are actually playing every single week. There’s extra sessions and all of that to make sure you’re fit and technically up to it.”
As Fleck hopes to be declared fit for the meeting with fourth-placed City, the fact Wilder has suggested the Scotland international might be forced to settle for a seat on the bench highlights the benefits of that approach. The exhaustive analysis of performance indicators and personality traits extends to recruitment too.
“We’d still have that attention to detail, even if we had loads of money to spend like some of those around us,” Wilder replied, when asked if his strategy would change if United suddenly came into money. “We wouldn’t just sit back and think ‘We’ve signed him for that amount of money’ or whatever. We want lads who fit into our football club. The work we put in before bringing Ben here was the same as we did for Sander (Berge). One (Osborn) cost about £1.5m and the other about £20m odd.”
Osborn, aged 25, could make his fifth consecutive start at City after helping to create two of the three goals United scored against Chelsea. Unlike Wilder’s charges, Brendan Rodgers’ men are still struggling to come to terms with the post coronavirus landscape; winning only once since ‘Project Restart’ was implemented.
“It can quickly turn the other way,” cautioned Wilder. “We’ve seen that ourselves. I’m not surprised to see the lads put themselves back on track, even though we were a little bit concerned with how things initially began to transpire.
“But I can turn the other way in an instant. That’s something we have to guard against. We have to keep on at the players and we want to leave everything out there in our remaining games. And I mean everything.”
United are scheduled to host Everton on Monday before completing this season’s programme with a game at Southampton next weekend. After climbing out of the Championship last term, they are determined to ensure a campaign which many predicted would end in relegation delivers something much more memorable instead.
“If we can go to Leicester and come out with a result, then why not? This one is massive, a huge game, so let’s go from there,” Osborn said. “I feel like the pressure is more on Leicester, on the balance of things, because they’ve been fighting for a Champions League place all year. We’ve got to try and make it really difficult for them. We’re not focusing on anything else.”