WE’RE not going to Wembley – an inspired title and one which will strike a heartfelt chord among Blades fans even before they open a book every bit as extraordinary as the events that shaped it.
Sheffield sports journalist Danny Hall, author of He’s one of our own which charted Chris Wilder’s sensational first season in charge of Sheffield United, has done it again. If his first step into the world of publishing raised the bar, this latest work is exceptional.
Much more than just a chance to relive the rollercoaster ride of last season which resulted in the Blades returning to the Premier League after an absence of 12 years. Meticulously researched, it offers, as you would expect, a factual account of what happened. But it also uncovers a hitherto hidden side of the promotion push even most avid of supporters won’t have been aware. A fascinating insight into the dressing room and what really goes through the minds of players whose public faces are often guarded, deliberately bland and cliched.
The man himself, Chris Wilder, provides a foreword, an endorsement if ever you needed one. We’re not going to Wembley reveals the strengths, challenges – and insecurities – behind another remarkable season under a manager who along with his trusted No2 Alan Knill and backroom staff, drove United over the finishing line. As you will quickly realise but for extraordinary efforts behind the scenes it could so easily have ended very differently.
Especially if Wilder’s diversion during a family holiday in California last summer to the Santa Monica home of former United chief executive Stephen Bettis hadn’t been a success. “Wilder had made the return of Bettis one of his key conditions in preliminary contract talks with the Bramall Lane hierarchy,” writes Hall.
What comes across very strongly throughout this book is team spirit, a band of brothers most of whom are friends away from the game. That’s not to say it’s all smooth going. A fracas in the visiting dressing room at Villa Park being a perfect example after United had thrown away a 3-0 lead in the final minutes to leave with just a point. When furious captain and hat-trick hero Billy Sharp returned to his teammates and ready to read the riot act after being interviewed on pitch by Sky TV, boss Wilder told him to stop. “The gaffer just said ‘Bill, leave it - it’s been dealt with’. I was told afterwards that a few things went off.”
That collapse was widely viewed by the players as a turning point for the better. Among them goalkeeper Dean Henderson who didn’t have his finest hour in a Blades shirt. Wing-back Enda Stevens was seen angrily remonstrating with him after Villa scored their late equaliser. “There was a lot of talk about what I said to Deano after the game, but it was nothing to do with him making mistakes or anything,” he said. Adding: “I apologised to him for that because I didn’t know the cameras were on me at the time. What was said was said, but I wasn’t calling him out – although it did look like that. It looked terrible on my behalf.”
Henderson, on loan from Manchester United, kept 21 clean sheets during the campaign, more than any other Championship keeper, and his ebullient character enabled him to form a rapid bond with supporters at Bramall Lane.
But Hendo reveals that his confident manner isn’t quite all that it seems. “People look at me and say ‘Ah he’ll be all right. He’ll be sound’. But deep down, I’m just the same as everyone else and sometimes, it does hurt. I didn’t want to come back in after the Villa game.”
After Wilder sat his players down at Shirecliffe to watch the video nasty of what happened in this final few minutes at Villa Park, Henderson added: “ Honestly, I wanted the ground to swallow me up. With how I felt at that moment, I could have quit football. Retired on the spot.”
Striker David McGoldrick was voted Player of the Year and for good reason. Although United’s strength was that many of his teammates could just have easily have won it. A chapter reveals which player voted for whom and why.
Out of contract at Ipswich and fearing for his future Wilder offered the then 30-year-old a trial. United fans weren’t convinced but long before he finished the season with a tally of 15 goals McGoldrick had cemented his place as another Lane favourite.
Most United fans had their first glimpse of what he might be capable of when he scored the equaliser in a 1-1 draw against Italian heavyweights Inter Milan at the Lane, the final pre-season friendly. “Ten days earlier I didn’t have a club,” McGoldrick laughed. “That just shows how crazy football can be.”
The Nottingham-born striker reveals how his belief in God is an important part of his life and also offers an insight into his upbringing after being adopted as a youngster. “I’ve never met any of my blood family. When you’re adopted you get a file telling you about your background but I wasn’t interested in that, because in my eyes the woman who adopted me has always been my mum.”
Such was his form for United, McGoldrick made four European Championship appearances for the Republic of Ireland, being named man of the match in a 1-0 win against Georgia in Dublin. He qualifies for Ireland through a maternal grandparent. “The FAI and I had to do some digging to get me a passport, through my birth mother’s parents,” said the striker who made his international debut in 2014 and now has 10 caps. “It’s crazy when you think about it, but that’s how I qualify. Everyone has their own backgrounds and I don’t ask too many questions about it, but I was a baby in a foster home for a bit.”
Author Hall captures many fascinating snapshots which never made the headlines. Everyone knows about the players’ wild promotion celebrations at the Lane after congregating to watch Leeds and Villa draw, a result which confirmed United’s return to the top flight. But few know of Wilder and his wife Francesca, hand-in-hand, walking a lap of the pitch before a moment of quiet reflection on an empty Kop.
Or the ribbing Chris Basham received from teammates after scoring the winner a couple of months earlier at Leeds, the good-natured claim being that his spectacular strike was the more the result of slipping. The defender, an integral part of United’s overlapping wing-back system that has caused so many opponents to scratch their heads, explains: “I didn’t slip, but I did slide with it! It nestled lovely in the bottom corner and then my emotions went. Cheeks puffed out, slide on my front. I must have watched that goal about a million times since.”
Basham represents everything that manager Wilder is about. A player who lacked confidence and error-prone under previous bosses Nigel Clough and Nigel Adkins, his game has been transformed. Something he readily acknowledges. “Chris has got more out of me than any other manager – things I didn’t even know I had myself.”
Then there is midfield man Oliver Norwood’s subsequent thoughts on his outburst at critical fans – “I do not care about the opinion on Twitter of John, who is 45 and still lives at home with his mum. It is completely irrelevant.” An attack aimed at supporters having their say which some regarded as condescending.
Norwood, by the way, promoted to the Premier League for three successive year, with Brighton, Fulham and now United but still to make his top flight debut, gives a fascinating account of the life of a footballer and the challenges which supporters don’t see.
He also doesn’t pull his punches on United when matters don’t go to plan. “We were crap at Rotherham (2-2)” he said. And on the goalless Sheffield derbies: “Two poor games, really. In the home game we were good but in the away one, we got dragged down to their level.”
Henderson, subjected to vile abuse from Wednesday’s Kop in the disappointing fixture at Hillsborough, reveals what was going on in his head at the time. “You don’t want to know what I had planned if we’d scored that night,” he said.
As in Hall’s first book on United, as well as contributions from players, supporters have their say, too, and not just on football. Blade Jonathan Bradley recalls the trip to “Mr Bleakley’s” Derby County which United lost 2-1. “In passing, anyone having a crisis of confidence about living in Sheffield should take a walk across Derby city centre.”
He continues: “At half-time we enjoyed a beer – my friend, Carly, holding three pints in her hands and one in her cleavage, a feat both remarkable and impressive in equal measure.”
Broadcaster and local journalist Alan Biggs, a man who has witnessed many ups and downs over the years at the Lane, also contributes a chapter which rings many bells for me. Nothing I have seen in my years of watching United compares with the quality of football produced by John Harris’s legendary side of the early 1970s – Woodward, Currie, Badger, Helmsley, Colquhoun, Salmons, Reece and all. Biggsy agrees but he does find aspects of Wilder’s team that have the edge.
“What I CAN argue in favour of the current group,” writes Biggs, “is that I’ve never known a more together dressing room. Or a manager who has had a bigger, quicker impact. And who has the ability to top the lot. In those two areas – and rapport with the fans - Wilder’s bunch stand out for me.”
This is just a flavour of what you will find in We’re not going to Wembley, published on August 1. An outstanding work which, as Wilder himself acknowledged recently, is a treasure from one of the most memorable season’s in United’s history for many, many years.
Danny Hall, an outstanding journalistic talent in his day job at The Star and destined for a great future, recently received Yorkshire’s O2 Sports Journalist of the Year award, his third such title, in a gala evening staged at Elland Road, the irony of which must have made it even more memorable for him. Meadowhall is where he can be found on August 4 (noon) at a book signing in Waterstones. You can also order online (£11.99 plus p&p) by clicking here. Enjoy.