Towards the end of last season, as his team powered towards the title and homed-in on its target of 100 League One points, Chris Wilder insisted that Sheffield United were back.
A club which had spent six years scrabbling about in the footballing wilderness had, by piecing together a squad of wholly committed players, rediscovered its identity, self-belief and poise.
Derek Geary hopes United’s under-18’s can tap into the zeitgeist when they host Coventry City in the PDL2 play-off final tonight.
“The great thing about here is that it’s a real family,” he said. “The whole club is like that. The lads walk past Billy (Sharp) at the training ground, they bump into him and see the rest of the first team lads. We were talking the other day about how important that is, how it builds a real sense of identity and pride. If you go to Manchester United, with all due respect, I’m not sure Jose Mourinho would really know everyone working in their youth system. At Liverpool, they work 10 minutes away. Here, everyone knows everyone. So, what happens to the seniors, is felt at youth level as well.”
Geary, who made over 100 appearances for United between 2004 and 2010, remains an influential figure at Bramall Lane after being appointed under-18’s coach 11 months ago. Speaking earlier this week, academy manager Travis Binnion revealed his disdain for folk who try and “re-invent” football; an antipathy the former defender and also Wilder, given his recent comments about “winning battles and races”, both share.
“The principles of football, I don’t think, have changed,” Geary continued. “I was listening the other day to Sergio Aguero talking about why he had been dropped at Manchester City. He said it was ‘because the manager told me I wasn’t working how he wanted.’ So, if Pep Guardiola, one of the greatest coaches in the world wants hard work, what does that tell you?
“John Terry did an interview a few months back about Antonio Conte and how things had changed at Chelsea. One of the things he mentioned was how much running, in pre-season, they did compared to in the past. How hard they worked. He said the running was good because it prepared you mentally to push yourself. Those two coaches demand hard work. The manager here demands that as well.”
Wilder has made no secret of the fact he wants to work with talented but mentally tough players since taking charge last year. So, although the emphasis is still on enjoyment at junior level, youngsters close to graduating from United’s youth system are exposed to the same demands as their first team counterparts.
“I hear a lot of people telling me that performance is everything and winning isn’t important,” Geary says. “I’m sorry but I can’t agree. You can play badly and win a game but you won’t develop that way. Okay, you can’t win every time but giving everything to try and win, including your own personal battles is.”
“Being a part of matches like this, how can it not help the lads? Of course we want to win,” Geary adds. “If we tell them it isn’t important, winning that is, and then they go up into the first team environment, how are they supposed to adjust? How are they going to react when the manager is shouting because something has happened he doesn’t like? That’s what happens up there, it’s a tough business. You don’t go overboard but you’ve also got to prepare people as best you can.”
Geary, a member of the United squad which gained promotion to the Premier League in 2006, forms part of a coaching team containing youth, experience and, in the cases of Binnion and Jamie Annerson, two folk who know what it takes to progress through a youth system responsible for producing the likes of Kyle Walker, Harry Maguire and Dominic Calvert-Lewin in recent years.
“I think we’ve got a great mix here,” Geary says. “I played for the club, Jamie was in the system and so was Trav, who is a brilliant young coach, too. Then there’s John (Dungworth), who has played the game, and Mick (Wadsworth) who has got so much knowledge from being a manager himself, working with top players and also Sir Bobby Robson, one of the best managers there ever was. There’s a really good balance.”