Last season was a campaign of two halves for Sheffield United.
Languishing in the relegation zone when Nigel Clough took charge in October, the finished seventh in the League One table and reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup. On the eve of tomorrow’s curtain-raiser against Bristol City, The Star’s James Shield met with the United manager and his coaching staff to discuss what they next nine months might hold.
JAMES SHIELD: Before we assess Sheffield United’s prospects this season, what are your reflections on last term?
NIGEL CLOUGH: All it’s led to is more expectation. We are favourites with the bookmakers but that’s because everyone has remembers how we finished rather than the start.
GARY CROSBY: It’s a total irrelevance. Because it’s been and gone. What happened back then is in the past and now we are starting afresh.
JS: But those results much have some sort of bearing now, surely?
CHRIS MORGAN: The big advantage from a players’ point of view is that they know what the gaffer wants. Everyone who was here and who has come back knows his way of doing things. The other is that, when he first came in, we were at the bottom of the table and everyone came to Bramall Lane thinking they were going to win. Now, visiting teams will come here with a different mindset.
NC: We used that to our advantage in some ways.
JS: So the impact is more likely to be psychological?
GC: Probably. We’ve got lots of new players to bed in and that’s fine. But it takes time.
NC: To be fair, all of the players gave absolutely everything last season. One hundred per cent at the end.
JS: The upturn in fortune here was pretty dramatic. Okay, not instantaneous but pretty sharp nonetheless. What changed?
NC: The players who came in around January - John Brayford, Bob Harris and Stefan Scougall - they really helped. They really found they feet by February and that gave us fresh impetus. But everyone contributed.
ANDY GARNER: They were all good guys. And by that I mean both on and off the pitch. They picked things up behind the scenes and brought extra competition.
CM: The gaffer coming in, and his staff, also made a massive difference. There were players here who looked like they were heading for the door and who ended up being challengers for player of the year like Jamie Murphy for instance.
GC: There are no secrets here. It’s all very simple.
JS: You’ve signed ten players so far this summer. Explain your manoeuvres in the transfer market?
NC: All we’ve done is tried to improve certain positions and stick to a budget. We’ve not been interested in any stellar names. Just good solid, capable players who will help the squad.
AG: We all look at players. We all go to a lot of games and we know the type of characters we like.
NC: What’s been interesting for me is the new perspective we get from Morgs and Wardy. When we brought Ben Davies in, Morgs couldn’t believe he’d not played at full-back before. But, on other occasions, they’ve been a fresh pair of eyes and that’s been brilliant. John Brayford is the epitome of what we want.
JS: How do you knit together as a group of staff?
AG: The gaffer, Gary and myself have been together for a long while now. But I’ve got to say Morgs and Wardy have been superb. Their knowledge is excellent and they’ve been a massive help all the way through.
CM: Stop it. You’re going to make me cry.
AG: I’m happy to give credit where credit’s due. But don’t get too used to it.
NC: Morgs and Wardy know the club inside out. And that’s invaluable. They knew the people, the problems and the strengths when we came in. We’ve never said ‘this is how it’s got to be done.’ You’ve got to be flexible according to the situation you’re in. We like to encourage everyone, for example, to give opinions on players we’re looking at signing and that’s how we work with regards to the team on a Saturday too.
JS: But everyone has their own basic principles. Fundamentals that don’t change.
AG: Usually we try and make things enjoyable. Do lots of work with the ball.
DARREN WARD: An element of fun has to be there. But so does an intensity to how you work. They’ve embraced Morgs and myself and given us a wonderful opportunity. We’ve got the same ideas on things like that.
CM: Science is important but players quickly get bored if there’s too much. If the majority of your work is game-based then they’re happy.
NC: You can enjoy working hard. If you do that then you can work even harder without realising it. But it’s a tricky balance to strike and an edge of competition has to be there.
JS: Are you confident about the team’s prospects this season?
NC: Confident isn’t the right word. I prefer belief. There’s definitely a belief here.
AG: We still have a lot of work to do. It’s never easy and this division is always so hard to predict. But, of course we have a belief.
NC: You won’t find us spouting off making grand statements. We are aiming for the top six and looking to build confidence along the way.
CM: Confidence comes from winning games. That’s the only way you build confidence.
GC: We have lots of players to settle in. Which, don’t get me wrong, is good. But it also takes time. If you look at most of the teams who have gone up from this division recently, very few of them have been right up there from the start. But they’ve grown in stature as things have gone along. So, hopefully, there won’t be too much despondency if things don’t click straight away.
JS: Is that, perhaps, your biggest challenge at the start of the season?
NC: Maybe. At this stage, it’s impossible to predict what that might be. All I’m saying is that nobody, before a ball has even been kicked, genuinely has confidence that they’re going to go up. Wolves won’t have had that last season. But they will have had a belief. And that’s what we’ve got too.
JS: Sheffield United climbed from 21st to seventh in the League One table and reached the FA Cup semi-finals. With the Capital One Cup and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy also featuring on the fixture calendar, are you ready to sacrifice progress in some competitions to enhance your league chances? Or are you going to try and attack on all four fronts?
GC: We’ll try to do our best in everything because we hate losing. Even if it’s an eight-a-side at the end of training, you should hate losing. The principle going into every game is that you try and win it. No matter what the competition is. Otherwise, what’s the point?
CM: Arguably it was the FA Cup run last season that really started everything off. Beating some of the teams we did, like Aston Villa and Fulham, showed the lads that they were a decent side. We were something like third from bottom when we lost at Crewe in February. We went on a good run in the cup and everything else seemed to stem from that. It really helped with the momentum.
NC: The strength of the squad now is better and that should help because it allows us to make changes yet still utilise players of similar quality. The challenge, for those who come in, is then to show us that they should be in the team. That they should be starting. That’s the competitive edge I was talking about earlier. Sometimes, with the demands of the season, you do have to manage the options at your disposal to try and ensure people stay as fresh as possible. But we’ll try and do as well as we possibly can on every single front.