JOHN LUNDSTRAM has often divided opinion amongst Blades supporters. Not anymore.
Even the most enthusiastic of his admirers could not have imagined that the 25-year-old midfield man would be at the forefront of Sheffield United’s return to the Premier League. Most supporters believed events had overtaken him and a seat on the subs’ bench was the very best he could hope for. Indeed, it’s safe to say that many wouldn’t have been surprised if he had been transfer-listed in the summer, deemed surplus to requirements at the highest level.
But manager Chris Wilder, who signed Lundstram from Oxford United in July 2017, has demonstrated yet again his eye for detail. “He’s such a good kid and sometimes you just need a little break,” explained the manager. “I said to him last season, if we do manage to go up then don’t think ‘that’s me done’. I always thought he had a part to play and now he just needs to show that level of consistency.”
Eyebrows were raised when Lundstram was named in the starting line-up for the trip to Bournemouth, United’s first step into the top flight following an absence of 12 years. Almost an ever-present during his first season at the Lane, he managed just 12 Championship appearances in the promotion campaign. The Liverpudlian, however, produced a sterling performance in the 1-1 draw on the south coast, earning widespread approval.
Even so, would that be good enough to keep the likes of new arrival Luke Freeman – who demonstrated what a talent he is in a brief debut at the Vitality Stadium – on the bench when Blades fans welcomed the new Premier League era to Bramall Lane for the visit of Crystal Palace? Clearly Wilder had no doubt. His judgment was rewarded by Lundstram’s finest display in red and white-striped shirt.
By half time he’d already travelled a long way to claiming the man-of-the match award. Two minutes after the re-start Lundstram had clinched it, slotting home the only goal in front of Palace supporters at the Bramall Lane end to spark wild celebrations around the packed ground. And he remained a huge influence until the final whistle.
It was quite simply the player’s finest hour as a professional footballer, a man whose career until joining the Blades embodied the description ‘journeyman’. Now, on the strength of two almost flawless performances at the highest level, it’s hard to envisage him losing his place anytime soon. So what has been the cause of this eye-opening transformation? The simple answer is there hasn’t been one. Lundstram hasn’t changed; the environment he operates in has. Bizarrely, the aspects of Lundstram’s game which some fans found frustrating in the Championship, including me, are perfectly suited to what United need in the Premier League.
He is not a creative midfield player, at least up until now. Lundstram consistently scores highly in the passing stats because his default is to find the nearest teammate and offload responsibility. Just as you or I would do in our dreams if suddenly plucked from the stands and thrown into match action. Is this a sign of intelligence or one of limitation? Well, if you are limited it is the intelligent thing to do and there are many who had arrived at that conclusion.
In an attacking Championship team with plenty of time and space to exploit the opposition, as United were in both seasons after Lundstram joined, some found it frustrating that, on a metronome-like basis, he would knock the ball sideways 20 or 30 yards rather than take it forward and look for a pass to help unlock defences.
Others saw a player who didn’t give the ball away and also had an ability in his locker to deliver, on occasion, an accurate long pass to advancing wing-backs. Now, as the dynamic of Premier League football means United are no longer almost guaranteed to hold the upper hand, it is this quality that makes him such a valuable asset.
A holding player in the centre of the park, now being encouraged to advance, who finds his man more often than not and with an eye for a defence-splitting pass. A perfect example of which came when he slid an inch-perfect ball from just outside the box in front of striker David McGoldrick who couldn’t quite connect in what was a let-off for Palace.
It says something about the quality of the team Wilder has built, that despite more than £40million spent in the transfer window and the arrival of eight players (not including goalkeeper Dean Henderson who renewed his loan deal from Manchester United), the starting line-up against Palace contained ten members from last season.
It could so easily have been 11, but striker Callum Robinson was again preferred to club captain and goalscorer from the previous week, Billy Sharp, who this time sat the entire match out on the bench.
Lundstram, having made 40 league and cup appearances in his first season at the Lane, and has now scored in all top four levels of English football, was largely a bystander in the promotion-winning campaign.
Wilder said: “It’s been difficult the last two years for John with Ollie [Norwood] coming in and us not playing three midfield players. When he came in it was before Couttsy’s [Paul Coutts] injury. Hopefully people have seen what John’s about today, his best overall 97 minutes performance as it turned out to be.”
“It's a dream come true," said Lundstram who played for England’s Under-17s, 18s, 19s and 20s, developing at Everton as a youngster. But what had looked like a promising career never took off. He had loan spells at Doncaster, Yeovil, Leyton Orient (twice) Blackpool and Scunthorpe. Then a permanent move to Oxford after he opted to turn down another contract offer from the Toffees in order to play regular first team football and settle down.
“I’ve worked so hard since I was a kid to get here, so it's a really special one for me,” he said after hitting the winner, his fourth goal for United, the previous one scored 16 months ago in a 2-1 Championship victory against visiting QPR. He added: “I don't think I'll ever forget this one [performance], that's for sure.”
Make a similar contribution on a regular basis in the top flight and it’s almost as if United have signed another new player. It shouldn’t be a surprise by now but Wilder deserves all the credit for spotting that. Lundstram, meanwhile, has earned his days in the sunshine. Long may it continue.