The race to be crowned Sheffield United's player of the year reveals so much about what makes this team great

He probably has his own thoughts on who should have been chosen as Sheffield United’s player of the year. Football, after all, is a game of opinions.

Sunday, 3rd May 2020, 10:58 am

But whether he agrees with The Star’s decision to select Jack O’Connell or not, manager Chris Wilder will privately be delighted that as many of eight of the defender’s team mates could legitimately claim to be in the running. Because that explains why, before coronavirus brought the season grinding to a halt, United were standing seventh in the Premier League table; only five points outside the Champions League places and mounting a serious challenge for Europe.

Intriguingly, revealingly, all of those in contention were members of the squad which secured promotion from the second tier 13 months ago. Three, O’Connell included, had also helped the club climb out of League One. That ability to keep on improving, to push themselves and overcome every hurdle put in front of them, is what has enabled United to become such a formidable proposition for top-flight opponents. Crucially, by hiring players with an insatiable appetite to progress, Wilder and his staff have been able to help their employers compete at the highest level without relying too heavily on Bramall Lane’s cheque book. Given the vast wealth accumulated by those around them in the rankings, and the speed of United’s climb up the football pyramid, Wilder had to make this term about football. Because had they fought a battle on the financial front, it would have been a conflict they had no chance of winning.

“We have to do things differently and that’s what we’ve tried to do, right the way through,” Wilder says. “We do what suits us and our model. Okay, we’ve not got everything right. You never will. But by and large, I like to think that we’ve delivered value for money.”

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The sight of so many names vying for the award illustrates United are a team in the true sense of the word. It also strikes at the heart of United’s recruitment policy; the result of a conscious decision taken during the immediate aftermath of Wilder’s appointment three years ago when, sat in his office with assistant Alan Knill and chief scout Paul Mitchell, the three men decided to surround themselves with “good people” as well as “good players.” After identifying shock therapy was required to resuscitate a club which had just sleep-walked through its fifth season in League One, Wilder and his colleagues set about gutting the squad they had inherited, surrounding the small but select band of players they elected to keep with hungry professionals loaded with potential. It is a process they have stuck religiously too since, with even record signing Sander Berge, a £22m January purchase from Genk, acquired before his valuation soared. Good coaching has been important. So has the character of those Wilder works with.

“Ability, of course, you need to have that, but you need something else as well,” Wilder insists. “You also need the right attitude running all the way through the group.”

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Sheffield United's Player of the Year Jack O'Connell (right) celebrates a goal by fellow contender John Lundstram (centre) with his team mates: LINDSEY PARNABY/AFP via Getty Images

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Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder and assistant Alan Knill have taken a series of key decisions since taking charge at Bramall Lane: James Wilson/Sportimage
Jack O’Connell has been superb for Sheffield United in the Premier League this season: Simon Bellis/Sportimage