In a little over 24 hours time, Sheffield United embark upon their first Championship campaign in six years after winning the League One title last season. The Star’s James Shield discusses the challenges Chris Wilder’s side will face with Keith Edwards, who scored 171 goals for the club, and former midfielder Kevin Gage.
James Shield: This is a big, big season for Sheffield United isn’t it. For a whole host of different reasons.
Keith Edwards: Supporter-wise, they’ll be thrilled to bits. They’ll just be delighted to get back to these places because it’s where we deserve to be. Can we deal with going to places like Birmingham City and Nottingham Forest? Yes, I’ve got no doubts we can.
JS: The one thing you can definitely say is that there will be no inferiority complex at the club.
Kevin Gage: There won’t be one because of the way we played last season. We were head and shoulders above the rest of the division. The 100 points and however many goals we scored was brilliant. But it was the way we did it. We obliterated most other teams and, don’t forget, gave them a four game head start.
JS: They probably can’t afford a start like that this year, though, can they?
KE: It depends how they recover doesn’t it. If they recover in the same way as last season, I’ll take that every time. It was strength of character, pure and simple. John Fleck didn’t play in those games, he was left out for whatever reason, and that tells you a lot about Chris and his assistant Alan Knill. They can leave people out like that and see them respond in a positive manner. And, may I say, what a phenomenal player John is.
JS: From a players’ point of view, how big an achievement was reaching 100 points?
KG: To be honest, I wasn’t too fussed. The aim was promotion and the title was a bonus. Once promotion was achieved, I expected them to tail-off. I’d have played a few of the kids. But they were relentless. They wanted 100 points. I suspect that was because Northampton, where Chris was the year before, got to 99.
KE: He wasn’t afraid to say that either, was he?
KG: Personally, I couldn’t have cared less if we’d have rested the entire team that got us to 94 points or whatever it was and played the young lads for the last two games. Most people were partying by that point. But Chris and Alan clearly cared about it.
JS: That gives you a little insight into the character of the coaching staff and the squad doesn’t it.
KE: Speaking strictly as a goalscorer, I didn’t want to be rested. I wanted to play every week. Because that’s why I became a footballer. I understand why some people wanted to see some kids come in because it’s something we’ve done brilliantly. But, selfishly, you’re not telling me Billy Sharp wanted to miss out on those games and the Golden Boot.
KG: I can’t fault anything Keith has said there. But I can speak from experience because I made my debut, for Wimbledon, on the last day of the season aged 17 when we’d already got promotion. And for me, that was massive. It gave me a taste.
JS: What do you think is going to be the biggest challenge this year?
KE: To maintain that level of performance and consistency. Let’s not get too carried away. We got beaten by Southend at home and Fleetwood. We’ve got to be conscious of that. I have absolutely no doubt, though, that they’ll maintain their team spirit. That was phenomenal. I used to think Neil (Warnock) got a great spirit going. But what’s here now is something else. But we have to cut out mistakes.
JS: How do you cut them out? And deal with getting punished?
KG: You just have to. It’s part and parcel of playing the game. But the players should be confident. They’ve got technical ability and athletic ability. Because you need both.
JS: Will moving up a level bring more out of some players?
KG: I’d like to think so. Because we haven’t just scraped up have we.
KE: Togetherness is a big strength for Chris. But having that, coupled with people who can change a game like Billy, means others can make mistakes and perhaps get away with it. You always need players who can change games to get success.
JS: Are there game changers in there?
KE: Billy Sharp. John Fleck and Paul Coutts, don’t tell me they can’t. They might even get a bit more room. You’ve either got a good touch or you haven’t.
KG: Team spirit gets you so far. But it won’t be as important this year as making sure the players are technically good enough.
JS: But there will be times, surely, when it’s key. Because results won’t be as easy to come by will they.
KG: When it is important is when the s**t hits the fan on the pitch. It’s all well and good lads going out for a drink together. But when it’s really important is when it’s not going for you and someone has to get hold of the team and the game. And, because it was such a breeze last season, it’s not been tested fully on the pitch yet to be fair. People need to stand-up when required.
JS: Sheffield United don’t have the financial clout of some teams in the division. But can you get success in a different way?
KE: Yes, you can. Chris will stick to his basics. He knows his players. Players accept people who might moan a bit, like I did, and who might not work as hard as others. But, going back to game changers, the one who might not work as hard might be the game-changer. And these lads have accepted each other.
KG: Huddersfield showed you can. Preston showed you can, because they really competed until the end last season. Okay, the money helps but you can still get results by being clever and having a plan too.
KE: I like the fact that Chris doesn’t want to spend money we’ve not got. He’s very pragmatic like that. I also like to fact we’ve not spent much and brought in a few quid from sell-ons with the Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire deals. I think it plays to Chris’ strengths. He’ll deal with the cards he’s got. He won’t sulk about it. Personally, I think one or two other managers have. If you sulk, you can’t have a go at your players when you sulk can you.
KG: The one thing Chris and Alan have done is buy themselves time with everything they’ve done. I don’t think we’ll struggle but, if even if we did, they’ve shown they can do the job. They can more than do it in fact. So, whatever happens, they should be staying.
KE: One of their great strengths, and I say ‘they’ because I think Alan is a huge part of what’s happened as well, is that they’ve both managed each other. Chris was Alan’s assistant at Bury and then they got back together, the other way around, at Northampton and then here. They can get their heads together and turn things around if needed. I think that’s a really important asset to have.
KG: It’s going to be hard for some of the new lads to break in, because those lads will be so close.
JS: How do you break in then?
KG: Basically, do the business on the pitch. If you do that, players don’t care what you’re like or what you do. Seriously.
KE: Players are very good at accepting things. Finance, character or whatever. I played with lads who liked to go and have a drink, who were great blokes but wanted to get back to their families and others who were so barmy you wanted to avoid them at all costs! Joking aside, it doesn’t matter. Players, in my day at least, were very good at accepting that people are different.
JS: Finally, gentlemen, your predictions please.
KE: I’m not going to get carried away. I have to say to our neighbours, Barnsley, what a season they had by surviving comfortably. If we do that, I’ll be happy. I think we will.
KG: I’m going to say around 10th. I think we’ll go well and we might even have the odd period where we push for a bit more.