SOMETHING quite remarkable has happened at Bramall Lane. A makeover even the most enthusiastic of optimists could not have hoped for.
Eleven weeks in charge and no-nonesense manager Chris Wilder is doing exactly what it says on the tin. When he arrived on May 12 Sheffield United was a club in crisis. Spool on and today it is anything but.
Of course not a ball has been kicked in anger and proof as they say is in the pudding. If the Blades are not established as firm promotion contenders by the end of October it is one of the Yorkshire variety that will have fallen very flat. Patience has worn wafer thin and another long, hard anxiety-ridden winter in football’s wilderness won’t be pleasant for anyone. Not least Wilder.
On evidence so far it is hard to envisage. When he stepped over the threshold the club, by far the best supported in League One and beyond, had managed to alienate its fanbase thanks to the legacy of sacked manager Nigel Adkins. That is no longer the case. Due almost entirely to Wilder’s straight-talking approach season ticket sales remain healthy. New shirts are flying out of the club shop and disengaged fans are back on board with enthusiasm.
Wilder, who led Northampton Town to the League Two title last season, inherited a hugely bloated squad. He showed the door to ten of its number and put a further seven on the transfer list.
After a slow start on recruitment, he has demonstrated his football nous when it comes to the lower leagues, signing seven players most of whom would not be written on the back of fag packets in bars and pubs across the red and white half of Sheffield.
Defenders Chris Hussey (nominal fee from Bury), James Wilson (free, Oldham), Jake Wright (free, Oxford United) and Jack O’Connell (undisclosed fee, Brentford). Mark Duffy (free, Birmingham), John Fleck (free, Coventry City) in midfield and latest signing, striker Leon Clarke who scored 18 goals for Bury last season, arrived for an undisclosed fee. Another 18 would do nicely. Clarke, who spent just over three years at Sheffield Wednesday, obviously plays with more enthusiasm than it sounded like when asked about his move to the Lane.
Former Chesterfield midfielder Sam Morsy, now at Wigan, is rumoured to follow. The likely sale of Che Adams to Birmingham City or other Championship suitors in a deal worth up to £2million, the loss of whom only a couple of weeks ago was widely viewed as a minus, is now not so much of a blow. In fact it would help balance the books nicely. Suddenly United, only a few weeks ago in total meltdown, appear to have a squad of players capable of tackling the job in hand. A solid-looking defence, a strengthened midfield and plenty of options up front. All for a price that is within United’s reduced budget. Simples.
Except as Blades fans know to their cost to achieve that is far from simple. Wilder, however, appears to have done it in the shortest of time and with the minimum of fuss. It’s hard to make any firm judgment from United’s rather odd pre-season which began at Stocksbridge Park Steels, ends at Handsworth Parramore with a training trip to Spain and fixtures against Grimsby and Derby in between.
United brushed the Mariners aside in a 3-1 Blundell Park stroll at the weekend. Against Derby, Wilder’s first match in charge at the Lane this week, it was a very different story. But there was more than enough in a 1-0 defeat delivered from the penalty spot by former Blade Nick Blackman, to suggest that United are on the right track.
Of some concern though was Wilder’s comment afterwards when he said: “We need more belief, quality and confidence.” As is Wilder’s need to regularly repeat his mantra from day one that if players don’t want to play for the club they should leave.
He mentioned it again this week. By association it suggests that he still hasn’t weeded out all the deadwood. Following the pay-off given to Dean Hammond, the club may have to take the same route with another of former boss Adkins’ favourites Martyn Woolford. But two transfer-listed players, Paul Coutts and Kieron Freeman, have so far done enough to persuade Wilder they may still have futures as the Lane.
Initially character and quality of performance will be key, but in the final analysis, especially in the sixth successive year in League One, it's results that matter. Perplexingly, the two don't always follow.
On August 8 last year United fans headed in their thousands to Kent, expectation high that this was going to be the start of something big. It was. A shambolic 4-0 defeat at Gillingham on the opening day of the season was the heaviest defeat of the campaign and, as it turned out, a chilling insight into what was about to unfold.
By the end United had slumped to their lowest league finish for 33 years – 11th in third tier – and a truly deluded and desperately poor manager too full of his own self importance, clutched at straws and partly blamed the fans.
On August 6 thousands of Blades will make their way to Bolton in a similar frame of mind to that of a year ago. Yes, history tells us it could all go pear shaped. A setback at the Macron Stadium followed by a few bad results and the squad assembled by Wilder may crumble if like last season it has no backbone. If so he will have a lot of explaining to do.
The smart money, however, is on Wilder, made of sterner stuff than most of his more recent predecessors, to bring joy back to Bramall Lane with a team reflecting his own image. For many that alone is good enough and a risk well worth taking.