John Brayford reveals why Sheffield United spell was most enjoyable of his career - despite containing his biggest regret
John Brayford is a man who, wherever his football career has taken him, tries his best to fully immerse himself in the culture of a club. But his time at Sheffield United, he says, will not be topped.
“Because of the whole. I loved my time at Derby and I have loved it at every club I have played at,” he said. “But there was a connection with the place. Sheffield has two huge football clubs and as a whole, with my life, I would choose Sheffield United for sure.
“For the whole experience. The times we had, the trips we had, the people I met. Even behind the scenes. I still speak to some now. Football is a part of your life, it’s not everything. And you meet good people along the way.”
Brayford’s time at Bramall Lane was relatively short, but certainly sweet. His arrival on loan in the 2013/14 season coincided with a remarkable turnaround – United went from the relegation zone to finish on the verge of the League One play-offs, and reach the semi-finals of the FA Cup at Wembley – and after re-joining on a permanent basis the following campaign, United reached the last four of the League Cup before losing in the semi-finals of the play-offs.
The highlight for many Blades fans was Brayford’s goal in the FA Cup quarter-final win over Charlton at a raucous Bramall Lane, which helped send United on their way to Wembley and an incredible 5-3 defeat to Hull City under the arch, and the man christened ‘The Beard’ was certainly a popular man with Blades supporters.
“Once Bramall Lane is going… honestly I haven't played in a better atmosphere in a football stadium, ever,” Brayford, speaking on the Sheff United Way podcast, admitted.
“The only one that comes close is probably St James' Park but [at Bramall Lane] it's like the ball's being drawn into the net. And you get an extra five per cent from that.”
Brayford’s path to Bramall Lane began when David Weir was sacked as Blades boss, after just one win in his 13 games in charge, and Brayford’s old Derby boss Nigel Clough was appointed.
Brayford signed on loan in January of that season and a run of nine straight victories in league and cup proved the catalyst to turn their fortunes around. They ended the season seventh, seven points adrift of the play-offs.
“We always said, if we had three more games we’d have gone up that year,” Brayford said. “I have no doubt whatsoever.
“I remember turning up at Bramall Lane and it was like: ‘Yeah, we are going to win’. It wasn't even a question in our minds. When everyone was behind us, it was like we were playing 20 against 11. It felt like that, truthfully.
“The FA Cup run was really, really special but the end of it was the biggest disappointment in my whole career, even to this day.
“When we drew Hull in the semi-final, it wasn’t like: ‘We’re going to Wembley’. I thought we had a hell of a chance to get to an FA Cup final. Straight away I thought that.
“To get there was amazing but the biggest disappointment is that we should have won that day. Regardless of how happy Blades fans were at scoring three goals at Wembley or getting to a semi-final, we genuinely should have won that day and even over relegations I've had, that's the biggest disappointment in my career, not to get to that FA Cup final.
“I know people were happy to have scored three goals but at the same time we had a big chance to get to a cup final as a League One football team, and then it's 50/50 in the final.”
Despite that disappointment, that remarkable FA Cup run left an indelible mark on Brayford.
“It was all around the city, leading up to the games. The Charlton game, the ground was physically shaking.
“After the game, we were in the changing room and you could hear everyone singing the Greasy Chip Butty song. Even half an hour after the final whistle.”
Brayford’s time at Bramall Lane came to an end soon after Chris Wilder took the reins in 2016, inheriting a squad low on confidence and quality following the disastrous Nigel Adkins season.
The right-back played the first four games of Wilder’s tenure, before re-joining his first club Burton – then in the Championship - on loan.
“I went to Burton, Kieron Freeman played in a 3-5-2 and the rest is history really,” Brayford said.
“But I still stay in touch with Chris to this day, I spoke to him recently to wish him all the best in wherever he goes next and I don't have a bad word to say about him.
“What he's achieved for Sheffield United football club is amazing and although I was sacrificed, I don't see that as a bad thing with where the club has gone from that moment.”
Now 33, Brayford is back where his career began at Burton after signing a two-year deal last summer, agreeing to take a pay cut to help the club through the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We're a small dot here for a small amount of time, that's my mindset, so enjoy every single moment of it,” Brayford added.
“Especially in these times now. We can all get negative about things, it's so easy to do that, but we have a life to live at the end of the day.
“Whether it's in football, journalism, anything you want to do. Why not enjoy it to the maximum?
“We don't know when the last day is.”