Sheffield United: Why did so many of Chris Wilder's players attend the school of hard knocks?
Two weeks ago, not long after Lee Evans first arrived at Bramall Lane, Chris Wilder summoned his players to a meeting.
Tactics, team shape and strategy were all on the agenda. So, during the impromptu get-together inside the training ground canteen, was the code of conduct to which new players must adhere after joining Sheffield United.
But, as the manager and his staff plotted a course through the rest of the Championship campaign, Evans’ attention was drawn to something else; how many of the audience, just like himself, had started their careers in non-league.
“The gaffer was going through this a while back,” Evans remembers. “He was talking to the boys about it and the number is something like 80 per cent. That’s an unbelievable amount when you think about it. If you ask me, it tells you something about our psychology.”
Tomorrow, when arch-rivals Leeds make the short journey south, United must be at their bloody-minded best to resurrect a promotion challenge which has faltered in recent weeks. Wilder’s squad climbed to the top of the table after triumphing 2-1 at Elland Road earlier this term. Four months and 16 games later they find themselves in eighth, two places above Paul Heckingbottom’s side after taking only 16 points from a possible 48. But Evans, the former Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder, believes being written-off will inspire United to even greater heights. Indeed, given their blue collar backgrounds, he reckons it suits them down to the ground.
“Because so many of us have come up the hard way, because so many of us have had to work our way from the bottom up, that tells you we don’t take no for an answer. That tells you we’re the type of guys who push as hard as we can. He (Wilder) is really big on character. We’ve got seriously good players here but we’ve got good blokes too. Talent isn’t anything without the right attitude.”
Evans is perched on a chair inside the Steelphalt Academy’s media suite as, only a short pass away from the scene of Wilder’s address, he traces his own journey through the game. Like Jake Wright, Mark Duffy and fellow new arrival Ricky Holmes, the 23-year-old learnt his trade below the fourth tier of England’s footballing pyramid. But, rather than reciting a hard luck sob story, Evans experience serving a Conference apprenticeship with Newport County has actually proved worth its weight in gold. Indeed, as he takes a sip of his smoothie, cites that and being released from Bristol Rovers’ youth system as the key chapters in a story which includes a recent call-up by Wales.
“It does give you that drive. For me personally, my biggest factor was getting released at 15 or 16 by Bristol Rovers. It that didn’t happen, I would be where I am today. That was a massive kick in the teeth. I got told by various people that I’d never play at a decent level. I know I’ve not played hundreds and hundreds of games but I’m hoping to play a lot here.”
Evans smiles as he insists, without a great deal of conviction, that he can no longer recall his detractor’s name. But he can identify the moment when, after establishing himself at Rodney Parade, he began to prove them wrong.
“I can’t remember who it was. I remember being in the FA Trophy final at Wembley with Newport though, I heard he said ‘I might have made a bit of a mistake here.’ I was back in school and really working hard. I just wanted to go as far as I can.”
It is testament to Wilder’s management skills and powers of persuasion that, after leading United to promotion last season, he has turned United’s lack of financial clout into a badge of honour. Leeds, who appointed Heckingbottom on Tuesday after dispensing with Thomas Christiansen’s services, are far from the richest team in the competition but still boast the likes of Adam Forshaw (4.5m), Pontuss Jansson (£3.5m) and Samu Sáiz (£3m) on their books. Evans, by contrast, cost £750,000 after spending the first half of the season on loan with Wigan. United might be relatively low on pounds but, out-performing the likes of Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday, Norwich City and their latest opponents, they are big on talent and personality.
“The quality of the players here, we’ve got a really good squad. There’s no better year than this year to have a real good crack at it. There’s boys not even getting on the bench here who would easily play for other clubs. The strength in depth is there. If you look, there are players in the Premier League who have done it, come all the way through. Really, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. You are always going to get setbacks in your career, it’s how you cope with them.”
Before he disappears to complete his warm-up drills, Evans, who returned to Molineux last weekend, has another admission to make.
“Yes, I supported Leeds as a youngster but keep it quiet. It was really because of my dad. But I’m Sheffield United now, pure and simple, I’ll just have plenty of tickets to sort out, that’s all.”