The reason Sheffield United's young players sang for their supper in Scotland, and why captain Billy Sharp believes it was vital they did
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“There were things you could do then you’d never get away with now,” Billy Sharp admitted.
Suffice to say, the initiation ceremony he went through during his first pre-season tour with Sheffield United was designed to test more than your singing skills. So when Sharp watched the likes of Zak Brunt, Kyron Gordon and Antwoine Hackford ordered to entertain their teammates midway through last week’s stay in Scotland, he probably felt they’d got away lightly. Rob Kozluk and Jack Lester, the United captain suggested, came up with something a little more daring to welcome him into the senior fold.
“It’s changed slightly over the years,” Sharp told The Star before United’s return to England. “When I came through, those two were always on at me, making sure I stayed on my toes. Things are very different now, as I’m sure people can definitely imagine. But it was all part of the process. A rite of passage if you like, something that we all had to come through.”
Sixteen years on, Sharp is now the one tasked with ensuring the youngsters Chris Wilder cherrypicks from the South Yorkshire club’s youth programme are equipped to survive in a Premier League dressing room. It is a job he takes seriously and, during United’s six day training camp on the outskirts of Edinburgh, took up much of his spare time. Wilder, speaking after their friendly against Dundee United was abandoned at half-time, revealed “a few of the lads are going to be belting some tunes out when we get back to the hotel.” Some people might view it as tantamount to teasing. But Sharp, who scored the only goal of the game at Tannadice Park, explained why the custom of singing for your supper is vitally important.
“The hardest thing, when you’re a kid and you get the call to work with the first team, is coming out of your shell,” he said. “You sit there, you don’t really feel like it’s your place to say anything and so you stay quiet and listen. The thing is, even though everybody has got a different personality, it’s important to contribute. So that’s why we do it. It breaks the ice and, really, we want to make sure the boys coming through feel welcome. It’s important they feel comfortable but not too comfortable, because that’s not a good thing in this business. We’ve all been there, as young lads, we all know what it’s like and, to begin with, that you can be a bit nervous.”
United’s stay at Oriam, a state-of-the-art sporting complex located on the western outskirts of Edinburgh, formed a crucial part of their preparations for next month’s match against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Absolutely vital in fact, given that John Fleck and Oli McBurnie checked into its hotel on Sunday after being called-up by Scotland while Sander Berge, Enda Stevens, David McGoldrick, Callum Robinson and Aaron Ramsdale also played their final pre-season fixture against Hearts on Friday morning. With seven players away on international duty, at least five of whom are almost certain to start the first match of the campaign proper, Wilder could be tempted to include more youngsters in his plans for United’s remaining friendlies - at Derby County and Preston North End. Regan Slater, who featured in both contests north of the border, impressed at Tannadice after being deployed at wing-back, despite making his name as a midfielder.
“People shouldn’t forget what a big deal this is for the kids,” Sharp reminded. “Reags has been training with us for a while now, he’s played in the first team already and been out on loan so he’ll be looking to progress, kick-on and get better.
“He’ll want to build on what he’s picked-up so far and he’ll benefit from being asked to do something a bit different. It could be another string to his bow, if you like.”
“You never stop learning but, the more you can soak up when you’re a youngster, the better as far as I’m concerned. Reags has been with us before, yes, but this experience will still have been brilliant for him. As it will for the other lads who have come up here with us as well.”
Slater, aged 20, has spent time with Carlisle and Scunthorpe since making his debut at Grimsby Town four years ago; becoming the youngest player to score a goal for United in the process. Further appearances, against North End and Ipswich Town, followed - with Wilder coining the phrase “cemented” after being impressed by Slater’s challenge on Bersant Celina at Portman Road.
With last season’s programme not being completed until July because of the Covid-19 pandemic, United have been forced to condense their usual warm-up schedule into a four week window. New signings Wes Foderingham and Ramsdale also travelled to Scotland, and although the latter is now embarking upon his second spell with United, the trip has allowed the goalkeeper to reacquaint himself with they way go about their business.
“It’s been good to come up here,” Sharp said. “It means we’ve been together for six days solid and doing lots of team bonding, even though that spirit is really strong anyway. It’s been a different environment and it’s allowed us to really focus and welcome some of the new lads into the group.”