THE SUN shining on a glorious summer’s day, football is back and 4,300 Blades are heading over the Pennines to Bolton to witness Sheffield United’s new dawn. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, quite a lot. Cast your mind back 12 months. Same optimism, different venue. A 4-0 defeat in front of the massed ranks of Blades fans at Gillingham who arrived in Kent believing this was going to be the season when United waved goodbye to League One. Midfielder Chris Basham recalled the pain this week and admitted, with feeling, that it was embarrassing. But enough of that. Today is the one day of the year when tradition is observed to the letter. Blades get out of bed and believe the glass is half full. To be fair, this time there is much to be optimistic about.
Only Unitedites could complain bitterly about the prices being charged for admission to the Macron Stadium, call for a boycott of the fixture and then queue up in the car park outside the Lane this week after Bolton released another 500 tickets, adding to the 3,700 already been snapped up.
Being a Blade is a glorious mix of the incomprehensible. Now Chris Wilder has to make some sense of it if the club is to emerge from what is the darkest period in its history.
On day one – prior to kick-off – there is every reason to believe he will. Don’t forget that just 13 weeks ago United were on their knees. A 2-0 home defeat to Scunthorpe ensured the lowest finish – 11th in the third tier of English football – for 33 years. Bramall Lane emptied and half of the 1,000 or so who remained booed former manager Nigel Adkins and his squad in the most embarrassing lap of dishonour ever likely to be seen.
Wilder, a United fan, took an axe to that squad, releasing 10 players and transfer-listing seven more, and has so far brought seven of his own choices to fill the gaps. He sounds like a man who knows what he is doing and speaks the same language as supporters because essentially he is one.
Talk, of course, is cheap. It is when things start to go wrong that a manager proves his real worth. That was never more evident than last season. Adkins found himself out of his depth and drowned in an inability to do anything about it. Thinly masked by a constant barrage of deluded optimism.
Bryan Robson famously said on the eve of a Sheffield derby at Hillsborough “It’s just another match with another three points at stake”. Statistically, of course, he was correct but the comment further alienated him from supporters in what was a turgid eight-month reign. United were defeated 2-0 that day in January 2008 and less than a month later Robson was sacked.
BAPTISM OF FIRE
Today we will see just what Wilder’s brand of football is all about. If it lives up to all the hype. Aggressive, attacking, pressing the opposition with pace backed up by a solid defensive unit.
It’s a baptism of fire against Bolton, relegated from the Championship who also have a new manager. Like Wilder, Phil Parkinson is in charge of his first competitive match in new surroundings.
The pressure is on all across the pitch for both teams which will make it such a fascinating battle. None more so than the comparison between goalkeeper’s George Long and Mark Howard, if as expected, he makes his league debut for Bolton.
Twelve months ago United goalkeeper Long was heavily criticised for mistakes in that opening day defeat at Gillingham. He was dropped in favour of Howard who had previously been United’s first choice. Long didn’t reclaim the No1 shirt until November. Many Blades fans were surprised that Howard, still only 29 and who spent four-and-a-half years at the Lane making 90 league and cup appearances, was released by Wilder.
“A team has to have a go every single game and when they’re driving away from the stadiums, home and away, win, lose or draw, they want to say they’ve seen a Bolton team that has given everything to win the game,” said Parkinson, a team-mate of Wilder’s at Southampton 30 years ago. It could have been the Blades boss talking.
Wilder has already informed his players that if they aren’t committed to his methods “there’s a set of golf clubs and a tennis racket, away you go.” You get the feeling that he means it.
Come 3pm today we will see if they are taking notice. Bring it on.