CHRIS WILDER has signalled he is likely to build his team around Paul Coutts and John Fleck if Sheffield United win promotion to the Championship.
But the return of fans’ former favourite John Brayford, on loan at Burton Albion, is becoming increasingly unlikely after the Blades boss confirmed that he was “more than happy” to let him go and make way for Kieron Freeman, one of the unexpected stars of this campaign, as a wing-back or right-back.
As he looked ahead to the visit of Charlton Athletic which will be the last Saturday kick-off at Bramall Lane in six years of League One football if the Blades go on to clinch promotion, Wilder paid homage to his midfield engine room.
“They’ve been outstanding,” he said. “The best two midfield players in the league. You come across a lot of good midfield players in this division but I’ll be pressed to find a two that’s better than them.”
Wilder was reluctant to be drawn on anything but the job in hand. He did agree, however, they were the type of players who could handle the step up. “Off the ball they’ve been really good,” he said. "Paul’s done his work off the ball as well. Maybe he’s been accused at times of just being on the ball where he’s been decent but off the ball he works extremely hard.
“They’ve been outstanding and to keep that partnership in the middle of the park right the way through the season has given us a bit of consistency and continuity that we needed.”
With Brayford already on the staff, Wilder declared United had the best full-backs in League One after Chris Hussey became his first signing, a free transfer from Bury in June. The left-back has made just 11 appearances, nine league, the last of them in mid-October. Brayford, signed by ex-boss Nigel Clough for £1.5million on a three-and-a-half-year contract and believed to be earning £15,000-a-week, made only four appearances, three league and one cup, before being shipped out to his old boss on loan just two weeks into the season.
“I made a comment about John Brayford and Chris Hussey, so that’s how much I know. Things change,” chuckled Wilder. He can afford to smile after helping to ease the wage bill and having his faith in Freeman, originally transfer-listed along with Coutts, repaid.
“I’ve never slammed the door shut on anybody,” said Wilder. It was never slammed on me as a player because my attitude was decent and Kieron’s attitude and the likes of him and Paul Coutts has been first class. There’s always an opportunity to work yourself back in. We made decisions at the start of the season looking at the group and from a financial point of view as well. What we needed to do to bring the other players in. It transpired that John Brayford went out of the building. I was more than happy for that to happen because I thought that Kieron would kick on and be a good player for us. The same with Paul Coutts. We’re delighted that Kieron has had an outstanding season and we’re looking for him to finish off in style.”
With nine matches remaining table-topping United have an eight-point advantage over second-placed Fleetwood Town and are nine ahead of Bolton Wanderers who occupy the first play-off place with a match in hand.
Charlton’s visit is the first of five remaining home matches. A maximum haul form those alone would put United on 90 points, realistically more than enough to guarantee Championship football.
Wilder, however, is confident in his players to stay focussed. “We’re not an arrogant staff, not an arrogant bunch of players, we’re not big time,” he said, and added: “It is a humble atmosphere around here, they all know there is a lot of work to be done. We respect the league and we respect the opposition. That’s the way we roll and until we achieve we’ve achieved nothing. That’s the message going around the changing room from the skipper [Billy Sharp] downwards.”
Mark Duffy, another influential midfield player, is fit again after injury at Rochdale a fortnight ago and available to face Karl Robinson’s Charlton. So too is 23-year-old attacking midfielder Samir Carruthers, signed from MK Dons in January although Wilder believes supporters are unlikely to see the best of him until next season.
“We’ve got to get him up to speed,” said the manager. “He came and I’ve got to say he wasn’t at the levels that we would have liked him to be or at the levels that we are for one reason or the other. Then he got injured after about ten minutes [on his debut] at Southend.
“Samir gives us a spark and I’ve told him that he’s got a part to play this season. He needs a full pre-season. It’s difficult to catch up when he was out for a month injured. It’s a balancing act because we don’t want to smash him on the training ground and make sure we have to save something in his legs for Saturday whether he plays or whether he comes off the bench.
“It’s always a squad effort, it’s always a 14-man game. We feel we make positive substitutions and not ones to sit back and soak and contain – to take the game from the opposition. We did that the other night [at Swindon]. We put Samir on and we stuck [striker James] Hanson on as well. For us to have that quality coming off the bench is fantastic for me and the coaching staff.”
United have conceded seven goals on their travels in March. Wilder admits it’s a concern but is more than happy in the way his team responded to the challenge, adding ten goals and seven points form a possible nine to the tally.
“Of course we’re always looking to see what we can do better but off the flip side of that, three away games to score four, three and a three and going for games I think I’ll look at that in a positive way.”
Wilder, who had just guided Northampton Town to the League Two title, was within hours of joining Charlton last May before a phone call from United co-owner Kevin McCabe offered the Blades fan, former Lane ball boy and ex-player his dream job.
“I went to speak to them [Charlton]. I thought that was my right at the end of the season to see what the options were. But a lot of things have happened since then. Things happen for a reason and I’m delighted they did.”
STRIKER Leon Clarke has returned from St George’s Park, England’s training HQ, where he was recuperating from a troublesome ankle injury. He will play in a behind-closed-doors match next week to assess his progress. Wilder confirmed that James Wilson, Mark McNulty, Stefan Scougall, Harry Chapman, Louis Reed and David Brooks will also take part.