Friday, 4 August 2017

What we became.......

It has been 17 months since the last A United View post and whilst this might not be the start of more regular posts, it seemed as good a time as any to reflect on what has been an interesting time to be a Blade and probably one of the (If not the) most enjoyable seasons in 40+ years of being a Blade.

The last post "What have we become?" was a paean to the songwriting skills of Paul Heaton and condemnation of what United had become under Nigel Adkins, a man whose appointment pleased many Blades fans, me included, at the time. Turgid football, lifeless performances, off field issues and the complete blind faith and positivity of a manager seemingly out of his depth and stuck in his ways.

I missed the final game of that season, Scunthorpe at home. I had entered the Leeds Half Marathon forgetting the final fixtures moved to a Sunday, but had few regrets. The purgatory of 13.1 miles, post illness, in unseasonably warm temperatures was in some ways a more enjoyable option. Defeat, an embarrassing lap of honour/thanks and Adkins tenure was seen off in a flurry of two finger salutes and a chorus of boos and abuse.

No holding back.....

The appointment of Chris Wilder seemed to get a mixed response. Those close to him had unshakeable faith in his ability to sort the mess out. Others, me included, were impressed with success against a backdrop of a boardroom shambles at Northampton,  but equally questioned the lack of success prior to that at Oxford and a lengthier spell in non-league.

Most agreed he would time to sort the mess out and the financial costs of settling contracts and getting players out would place further limitations on him. Outgoing Chairman Jim Phipps had even commented that it would need 2 or 3 transfer windows for the club to fully right itself following the profligacy of Clough and Adkins' reigns.

The early signs under Wilder raised further questions. Incoming signings struggled to find their feet. The team still looked lacklustre, lacking in confidence. Most agreed he needed time to work this through and jumping down his throat, as some did just four games in, was embarrassing. It just reflects the instantaneous demand for results and change from certain quarters fuelled by a media needing creative content and social media frenzy.

Admittedly things were not great. By all accounts unlucky to lose at Bolton on the opening day, a late equaliser rescued a point at home to Rochdale, and a heavy defeat at home to Southend and a limp extra time defeat to Crewe in the EFL Cup was hard to take. I will be honest,  at that cup game I did what I haven't done in my recent memory, I left before the end of the game. When Crewe scored I just didn't see us scoring again, we looked devoid of ideas and heart. But I did believe that Wilder needed the time to sort it out. As a Blade he would be hurting, he wouldn't try soft-soaping the fans like Adkins did.

The turning point of last season came four games in, after defeat at Millwall thanks to a last minute penalty. Sensing the players were down, after what he considered a positive performance, Wilder got the coach driver to pull over at an off licence, bought £100 of beer for the players and left it at the front for the players to come and take. Cue a few uplifting words from his skipper Billy Sharp and the players responded. An old school approach, but it showed it can still paid dividends in the modern game.

In an interview Wilder once referred to "not fannying around" and he lived up to these words. The formation was tweaked, players whose United careers looked limited came off the transfer list and into the squad. A couple of his summer signings were sidelined and were rarely seen again, the keeper was changed. A ballsy move, but one in keeping with Wilder's forthright and honest approach. The arrival of Simon Moore and Ethan Ebanks-Landell before the August window closed strengthened the spine of the team and, although blighted by injury and fitness issues, Caolan Lavery added pace and a directness we lacked up top.

A fifteen game unbeaten run in the league followed, but it wasn't just a change in results or style of play, it was a complete change in mentality. We looked like a team that was unwilling to lie down and roll over like we had too many times in the previous twelve months. Late winners and equalisers were frequent, a sign of a team with huge self belief and although we rode our luck defensively at times, few would claim we hadn't earned that luck. Bodies were put on the line, blocks were made and the timing of some last ditch tackling was to the millisecond perfect. 

Leaders came to the fore in Jake Wright, Chris Basham and Billy Sharp, others were displaying the ability Wilder had clearly identified when signing them; Fleck, O'Connell, Duffy. Whilst others being given a last chance grasped the opportunity and made themselves irreplaceable; Freeman and Coutts. 

As understanding between players developed in a settled line-up, confidence grew and the quality of football was high. In some cases the only fault that could be found was a tendency to over-play it around the box, or that after some wonderful build up play the final ball was lacking. 

The unity of the team was clear to see and a passion from the bench that warmed the heart. There was first pumping, clenched teeth and kissing and patting of the badge sat over the heart. But this wasn't the panto teasing of a Warnock playing to the cameras. This was a manager turning around a troubled club, his club and this is what it meant to him. He was, he is one of us.

Defeat at home to Walsall was seemingly just a blip with the team showing real mettle by responding with a six game unbeaten run in the league over Christmas and the New Year, before Walsall completed a three game sweep of league and cup victories over the Blades. This time there wasn't the immediate response with a home draw against Gillingham followed by the team being outplayed at home by an impressive Fleetwood team. The fans were nervous, having taken over at the top of the league at the start of the year a win would have left us comfortably clear, but now Bolton were seven points behind in 3rd and now with three games in hand.

Wilder recognised that it was not the disaster that the fans were perceiving it to be. He was confident that small changes were required. The focus was on cutting out the silly mistakes and being a bit cuter in advanced areas, but first he had to lift players he said were hurting and that he did. From a manager in Adkins who focused on the psychological aspects of man-management, we now had a manager who didn't constantly talk theory, he delivered positive results. He didn't gloss over the problems to focus on the positives, he recognised the problems ad we had a manager we could relate to on so many levels. From February on-wards we didn't lose another match.

The run in was superb and provided many iconic images and moments that will live long in the memory. For those who were not around in 1990 for promotion to Division 1, or in 1982 for the Division 4 title, they now have their Leicester, their Darlington moments, in fact several of them. 

The away day at Northampton will live long in the memory. The expectation, the tension, then the joyous, unbridled relief as the goals went in, particularly Fleck's late winner that seemed to take an age to roll into the empty net. The massed ranks of Blades fans teetering on the advertisement hoardings, nearly on the pitch before it crossed the white line. The outpouring of emotion at the final whistle as the realisation sunk in and we had finally escaped the purgatory of League One. Billy Sharp chaired off the pitch, head thrown back, arms aloft clutching a red and white scarf, with a grip so tight the whites of his knuckles glimmered in the sunshine. Fans wandering the pitch in a daze suffering a heady mix of sunshine, beer and promotion.

Back at the Lane many waited for the team coach to return with Wilder and Sharp conductors in chief, orchestrating proceedings and starting the songs with obligatory Peroni in hand, supplementing the more traditional fizz. Scenes to be repeated on the Town Hall balcony post-season end.

The away games that followed at Port Vale and MK were pure celebrations. Partying unburdened of expectation or worry over results, but it didn't matter, this team was relentless in their pursuit of success. 100 points was the aim and that was what was achieved. Taking apart a strong and play off bound Bradford when the title was assured showed both the quality of the squad and the winning mentality that had been engendered over the previous seven months.

Much of last season had a similar feel to the back to back promotions achieved by the Dave Bassett era Blades. A manager who numbered a young Chris Wilder amongst his squad. The team spirit, the relationship between players and fans, the spirit(s) and beer are all considered key facets in the success of that Bassett team; lifting players to over achieve and exceed expectations. With Wilder and Sharp conducting proceedings this has a similar feel, with Alan Knill providing the more level headed and grounded support like Geoff Taylor did for Bassett.

The celebrations post-Chesterfield game could have carried on forever. No-one wanted to leave the Lane. You would think there is a limit to how many times you can watch a player thrust a trophy joyously sky-wards, but there genuinely isn't.

What a difference a year makes....

Now Wilder faces a new challenge. Operating at a level he hasn't managed at before he is level headed enough to know tough tests await. A team not used to losing will have to get used to it happening more frequently. That is not negativity, just realism. Our spirit and momentum from last season will carry us so far and that is one of the first tasks for the management team. Pre-season would suggest that the signs are good.

Wilder has shown he is not afraid to make changes and admit he has got things wrong. Although on paper it looked hard to let players go after a title winning season, Wilder’s ruthless streak was straight to the fore. Several of the successful squad were made available for transfer including some of his signings from the previous summer who had not made the grade.
As Wilder himself has said “you don’t get medals for spunking money”.  Incoming the targets are talented players from the lower league, sometimes former Premier League academy products, but those with a point to prove. Whilst this approach disappoints some fans who want to see money splashed out on proven Championship players, Wilder’s approach has proved fruitful so far and not upsetting the collective spirit and close bond of the existing squad is key to his decision making on any signing. For me this is vital, we cannot risk breaking something that underpinned our whole success last season.

The fans have a huge role to play this season. Whilst crowds were impressive for League One, very few games saw significant away support and, celebrations aside we were often quiet. Now with success comes bigger home sides, opposition with larger away followings and a need to make the Lane that cauldron we know it can be. The noise and intimidation that many visiting managers have previously commented on needs to come to the fore, as does patience.
Is the squad we have now as strong as we want it to be? Honestly, no. 
Is this squad capable of staying up? Yes.
Do I think we will strengthen before the end of August? Yes.
If we surprise people and are close to the play offs in January will decent money be released by the board? I believe it will.
Whilst many clubs throw around silly money on players on their way down, or who have never quite established themselves at the top level, there is a lot be said for United's approach. Successes like Huddersfield's promotion last season are few and far between, but show what is possible. At this stage the most sensible ambition at Bramall Lane is consolidation and in doing that you incrementally build on what got you up there in the first place. Consolidation this season puts in place the foundations for progression and that is when the investment is best spent. 
We have a fanbase excited about the present and the future. We have a team that represents the best attributes of successful Blades teams of the past, a group of players that the fans can relate to. I think we have a level headed manager, with a great coaching team around him, who will see us safe into mid-table and if we defy expectations he might just take us that bit further. That's what we've become and few of us expected this 18 months ago. 
Up the Blades!

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