Behind the doors of the Steelphalt Academy, far away from prying eyes, a battle is raging which makes the League One title race look like a kid’s tea party.
James Hanson versus Paul Coutts for Sheffield United’s ‘King of the Cue Masters’ crown.
“All the lads were telling me ‘wait until you’ve played Couttsy’ from the first minute I came in,” Hanson grins. “Because he’s the guy to beat. Pool is his game though whereas I’m better at snooker. I’ve had that title for a couple of weeks now. The rest of the boys try and avoid me in the single frame shoot-outs.”
When he isn’t busy preparing to wreak havoc among defences Hanson, the former Bradford City centre-forward, likes to spend his time potting balls. Visitors to the South Yorkshire club’s training complex, which also doubles as the squad’s unofficial social club following a makeover several years ago, will testify Chris Wilder’s players take their cue sports seriously. Darts and table tennis, which are also available in the first team canteen, too.
“There’s an actual snooker academy on the same site where we train and a few of us, when there’s time, like to have an hour or so down there when we can,” Hanson continues. “Ding Junhui has been in and a few other lads I don’t really recognise but the really keen snooker fans do. The tables are brilliant, totally different to what you usually get to play on, and it would be good to pick some of the professional players’ brains. It might help me hold on to my title. Flecky (John Fleck) had it before I came here but I think it went to his head because I’ve wrestled it off him now.”
Although United’s impromptu get-togethers over the green baize might not seem important, Hanson insists they have helped to foster the camaraderie which seems them enter tomorrow’s match against Charlton Athletic nine points clear of third-placed Bolton and favourites to reach the Championship next term. Wilder, the United manager, signed 12 players and released another 10 after being appointed as Nigel Adkins’ successor 10 months ago. With another four arriving during the January transfer window, including Samir Carruthers and Hanson himself, United have proven impervious to churn.
“Joking aside, it’s good bonding with the lads,” Hanson says. “They’ve been brilliant to me since I came in and things like this help you get to know everybody. It’s a good laugh and, the more time you spend together away from the pitch, the closer you are on it. This is a really tight knit bunch and I think, performance-wise, that really shines through.
“The lads have taken to me really kindly. When you go somewhere new, they always say you need to meet good lads and not bad eggs. I can honestly say there are none here. At Bradford, I was at dressing rooms in the past where there were a few divides but not for the last few years and that’s why they’ve had the success they have. There are similarities here, definitely.”
Hanson, aged 29, helped City reach the Capital One Cup final and win the League Two play-offs during eight-and-a-half seasons at Valley Parade. Having turned professional following spells with Eccleshill and Guiseley, he joined United during the January transfer window after Wilder, a long-term admirer, reckoned his style and stature would make him the perfect foil for leading goalscorer Billy Sharp.
“The partnership with Billy is getting better the more time we spend on the training ground. It helps when everything he touches turns into a goal, every single little half chance. It would be nice to score a few more goals but, so long as I’m contributing, that’s the main thing.”
Despite failing to hit the target since his debut against AFC Wimbledon, Hanson has made a significant contribution in recent weeks. A point behind leaders Scunthorpe when he arrived, United have since moved 11 clear of Graham Alexander’s side and eight above Fleetwood Town in second.
Described as the “best big man” in the division by Phil Parkinson, his old manager at City, following Bolton Wanderers’ defeat at Bramall Lane, Hanson admits: “It was nice to hear from him, being my old gaffer. It was nice playing against an ex-manager. I thought we were comfortable and the win was never in doubt. They had a few players out but, exactly, that’s what football is about. I think our squad looks really strong. The last two home games have shown what a big club this is. If we do get in the Championship, we might be playing in front of that every week. Obviously, sometimes, you get carried away and look at fixtures ahead, who is playing who. But if we keep on picking up our own points, we shouldn’t have to worry about anyone else.”
United, who beat Swindon on Tuesday, are preparing to face a Charlton team
“There are times you’ve got to dig-in, especially away from home, and we’ve shown we can do that,” Hanson says. “
Bristol Rovers, for example, we had a few players out injured ourselves. But we went there, got a point and its results like that which can get you promoted.”
If, and it remains if, United do achieve their objective then Hanson has a celebration in mind.
“When the weather picks-up, there are a few keen golfers in the squad and hopefully we can go out for a few rounds. I’m a 12 handicap and Couttsy is an eight I’m told.”
And so it goes on.