So what about United’s chances on the field this coming season?
If you scan your eyes over the list of teams in the second division this season your first thought is “How can the Blades live with that lot?” Just look at them - West Ham, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Leeds, Leicester, Watford, Ipswich, West Brom, Stoke, Wolves, Sunderland, Portsmouth, Oxford, Blackburn; all teams with a first division pedigree.
No, I haven’t gone mad, listing teams that aren’t in the Championship this season. The opening paragraph was first written in the editorial of Flashing Blade No.7, August 1989, at the commencement of the previous time United were about to embark on a season in the second tier after promotion from the third, under Dave Bassett. The teams might be largely different, but the sentiment is the same. We still have Middlesbrough, Leeds, Ipswich, Wolves and Sunderland, and for the others you can substitute Fulham, Wednesday, Aston Villa, Reading, Birmingham City, Derby County, QPR, Cardiff City and Norwich City. Several of these teams were recently in the Premier League and maintain the budgets to match that former status.
But spending loads of money does not guarantee success, as a lot of the aforementioned clubs have learned. It was thus refreshing to see Brighton and especially Huddersfield Town - reported to have the second-lowest budget in the division - win promotion, and Barnsley, Burton Albion, Brentford and Preston punch above their weight, whilst recent(ish) Premier League clubs Blackburn, Villa, Forest, Ipswich, Birmingham, Wolves and QPR struggled. The last time United got promoted to this division in 1989 budgets were nowhere near as large, but even so, United had one of the smallest, and that didn’t stop them winning a second straight promotion. It might be a bit of a stretch to expect the same again, but Wilder has instilled such belief and confidence in his players that anything is possible.
Wilder’s transfer dealings so far have been unspectacular, but well thought out. Each has been brought in to fill a gap or provide competition in areas where the squad was under-strength. These positions included both wing-backs, who are vital to the way United play. So Wilder signed George Baldock, very impressive for MK Dons at the Lane last season, and Enda Stevens, League Two champions Portsmouth’s player of the season, to compete with Kieron Freeman and Danny Lafferty. Central defence was another thin area, so the experienced Richard Stearman has arrived to try to knock Jake “Unbeaten” Wright out of the starting XI.
Nathan Thomas appears to be a bit of a wild card, but he’s hardly a gamble considering how much he cost. Expect Thomas and the emerging David Brooks to play the Harry Chapman role next season. Finally we come to the returning Ched Evans, who is also not a gamble. The fee is chicken feed for a striker in the Championship. However, Evans’ period out of the game may have dulled his skills, and he was never fully fit at Chesterfield last season. If he can get back to the fitness level he was at in 2011/12 - which admittedly is a big if - Evans could be a big hit.
There are of course other questions: can Billy Sharp - not really successful at this level previously - step it up? Is Leon Clarke too old to improve? Can Paul Coutts, John Fleck, Mark Duffy and Samir Carruthers adapt? Will the 3-5-2 formation be as effective higher up? Will Jack O’Connell continue heading bricks? It will be entertaining finding out.