If any Sheffield United players are fearing for their futures at Bramall Lane, they should talk to Kieron Freeman and Paul Coutts about how quickly football can change.
Both men started the season on the transfer list after being declared surplus to requirements following Chris Wilder’s appointment in May. Ten months and thirty-eight League One games later, they travel to Oldham Athletic tomorrow on the cusp of promotion to the Championship and having cemented places in the 49-year-old’s team.
Freeman’s journey from also-ran to regular starter probably sums-up, even better than Coutts’ rejuvenation, how new life has been breathed into an ailing and underachieving squad. The former Derby County and Nottingham Forest defender finished the previous campaign on the bench at Portsmouth after being loaned-out by Wilder’s predecessor Nigel Adkins. But, responding to some straight-talking and a tweak of system, Freeman enters tomorrow’s game at Oldham Athletic as United’s joint-second leading goalscorer and arguably their most effective wing-back.
“I made a comment about John Brayford being one of my lieutenants so that shows how things change,” Wilder said. “I’ve never slammed the door on anybody and I didn’t slam it on Kieron.
“We made decisions at the start of the season, looking at the group and also the financial situation in terms of what we needed to do to bring players in. But, like I say. things happen, as we have seen.”
Wilder was full of praise for the “commitment” demonstrated by the likes of Marc McNulty, James Wilson and Stefan Scougall, despite their lack of game time in recent months, during his pre-match media briefing yesterday.
Freeman’s big break came before August’s transfer deadline when, after Brayford failed to convince Wilder about his desire to remain in South Yorkshire, the former Wales under-21 international’s work ethic saw him handed a reprieve.
“John Brayford went out the building and I was pleased for that to happen because I always thought Kieron would kick on,” Wilder said. “He’s had a fantastic season but now we’re looking for him to finish it off in style.”
United travel to Boundary Park six points clear of second-placed Bolton Wanderers and 10 ahead of Fleetwood Town in third. Freeman’s fellow wing-back Daniel Lafferty is set to miss the fixture after being called up for Northern Ireland’s World Cup qualifier against Norway and Wilder is looking for him to take a leaf out of his colleague’s book after returning from international duty.
“It’s the system, Daniel Lafferty will be disappointed not to get more goals because, when we watch the games back, he gets himself into similar positions,” Wilder said. “Perhaps Kieron is just a slightly better finisher. But we encourage our full-backs to get forward and it’s difficult for opponents when they arrive in the box.”