BLOG | A United View Pt. 2 – The Return

BLOG | A United View Pt. 2 – The Return

Wednesday return to the Lane after a seven year break, with a heavily depleted squad and a new manager on his fifth day in the job.

So much attention has been paid to the Hillsborough circus in the past couple of weeks that United – home side and heavy favourites – have largely been ignored.

Once again, we caught up with John Osborne, author of the excellent View From The John Streetto get the low-down on United and their season since our Hillsborough meeting.

John has been a season ticket holder at Bramall Lane for 47 years.

As a journalist he worked for weekly and provincial daily sports desks, including the old Morning Telegraph in Sheffield, where he worked from the Hillsborough press box during the 1980s.

Back in October he recalled his time reporting on Wednesday.

“I used to travel on the team coach to away matches then – young Mel Sterland was quite a character –and stay with the team in hotels.

“As a Blade I always felt uncomfortable about that. But someone had to do it and I drew the short straw!”

John then moved to London and Manchester to work on the nationals. We’d like to thank him for taking the time to answer our questions about United.

 

 

United were flying after their win at Hillsborough but seem to have stalled a little. Why?

 

It’s no coincidence that our dramatic dip in form can be traced back to mid-November and a 3-1 win at Burton Albion which saw the Blades top the Championship table for the second time this season.

That night Paul Coutts, a driving force in midfield for us, broke his leg and is ruled out for the rest of the season. A huge loss.

Brooks: one United absentee on Friday

Add a three-match suspension three weeks later for his partner, John Fleck, and the heart of central midfield wasn’t functioning as it used to.

As a result our wingbacks, so important to United’s attacking approach weren’t enjoying the same freedom.

Defensively United have been solid under manager Chris Wilder but during this spell a series of inexplicable defensive errors have undermined the side. Incredibly United have only won once in the Championship, on Boxing Day, since that trip to the Pirelli Stadium, dropping 21 points from a possible 27.

It’s a marker of just how well we were doing that despite this calamitous run, we’re still very much in the play-off mix.

 

What needs to be done in the January transfer market in order to boost United’s top six ambitions?

 

Players of Championship quality, a couple of midfielders, a defender and a striker would improve the chances of promotion no end.

But the limited budget Wilder has to spend means that’s probably not going to happen. He has already moved to strengthen in midfield with this week’s signing of Ryan Leonard from Southend.

The 25-year-old was a target in the summer and after four rejected bids United have finally got their man. The manager seems to place great faith in him and despite the fact he’s yet another player we have taken from the lower leagues, if he’s good enough for Wilder then he’s good enough for Blades fans.

But United’s policy of searching League One and Two for bargains is a contributing factor to recent difficulties.

When key players go missing there is a lack of quality, something which Wilder openly admits. The problem is his hands have been tied by the club’s co-owners Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

 

What is the long term plan at United? Will the ‘game-changing’ investment ever arrive? 

 

Ah yes, the infamous ‘game-changing’ investment.

That’s what McCabe called it after handing over 50% of the club to his Saudi royal partner for the princely sum of £1 almost four-and-a-half years ago. We’re still waiting.

United seem to have two plans going forward at different speeds. Wilder doesn’t like to let the grass grow under his feet.

He has won back-to-back promotions with Northampton and the Blades and having delivered the real prospect of a play-off place, doesn’t see why he should stop now. Frustratingly the co-owners don’t seem to be in such a hurry.

It’s almost as if the pace of progress under Wilder has been too quick and they’re not yet ready to take on the huge financial burden of paying Premier League wages despite the size of the prize.

Wilder: will United be a stepping stone? (Image: SUFC)

McCabe is clearly frustrated that the promised investment has not materialised.

The long-term plan is, of course, to become established in the top flight. “Premier League in five years,” said McCabe in September.

But United’s biggest asset, Chris Wilder, is now attracting the attention of top flight clubs. West Brom were reported to have considered him in their recent managerial change.  The worry for many Blades fans is that if the club don’t match his ambition he might be tempted elsewhere.

The fact he’s a lifelong Blade, former player and ball boy is a huge pull for the boss. He’s living the dream but he’s no fool either.

 

Who is he and what has he done with the real Leon Clarke?

 

The most improved player I have seen in 49 years of watching the Blades and a prime example of the manager’s ability to coax the best out of individuals.

After a subdued start to his career at the Lane, Leon is now a darling of the Kop. When Wilder signed him from Bury in the summer of 2016 his arrival, shall we say, was met by a muted response.

Early performances matched fans’ low expectation and coupled with injuries many considered him to be a write-off.

Wilder, however, always insisted that when fully fit the striker would have a big part to play. And boy, has he been proved right. Leon, as Wednesday fans probably know, is a complex character who needs to be loved.

Leon Clarke: scores vital goal and injures himself celebrating. What a player.

After wandering from club to club, 17 in all, he’s finally found romance. United are a high-energy team but no-one works harder than the 32-year-old.

Six goals in five matches on his return from injury at the end of last season raised eyebrows. This season he has been sensational. The Hillsborough past of the Championship’s 15-goal top scorer has long been forgotten.

In the absence of fellow striker Billy Sharp he’s even wearing the captain’s armband. Leon’s a fully-fledged Blade now and he’s loving it.

 

To what extent are injuries dampening United’s promotion aspirations?

 

As I have already mentioned the absence of key players does expose United’s reliance on them and the need for more quality across the squad. But a great team spirit instilled by a manager who hates losing is an enormous plus. Even in the recent run of poor results, United always give 100 per cent effort.

Anything less wouldn’t be tolerated by Wilder.

 

Who should Wednesday fans be looking out for this time? 

 

Mark Duffy might ring a bell already. It was his goal at Hillsborough that restored United’s lead and took the, err spring out of the step of Owls fans.

Duffy is another key player who, thankfully, has remained fit. His industry keeps United moving and is regularly man of the match.

Duffy scores at Hillsborough (Image: SUFC)

Leon, of course, will need no introduction.

Fellow striker Clayton Donaldson who has recently established himself, is a clinical finisher.

But at least Wednesday don’t have to worry about David Brooks this time. The 20-year-old Welsh International with the magic feet has glandular fever.

 

How confident are you of wrapping up a derby double?

 

With what’s been happening at Hillsborough of late there can surely have never been a better moment to be playing our city rivals.

A team seemingly low on confidence, a big injury list and having to adapt to the methods of a new manager, Dutch Jos Luhukay, in such a short time before the showdown.

So yes, I’m more optimistic than usual.  It has all the makings of being a memorable night if you are a Blade because, make no mistake, Wilder’s team will turn up.

Strange things, however, can happen in Sheffield derbies. I have never looked forward to them because the stakes are too high. They are like play-off finals. You want to be there but the anxiety beforehand is unbearable and you’ll only ever enjoy it if you don’t lose.

 

Which player(s) in Wednesday’s depleted ranks is causing you any worry, if at all?

 

Injured player #23

I’m not trying to be dismissive, but I just think we have caught Wednesday at a time when this match will be all about how well we perform, not the opposition.

I’m a good deal less worried than before we went to Hillsborough.

Gary Hooper is the danger man for me if he can get the service (ed. – you needn’t worry, John, he’ll miss out with injury).

 

Any predictions for Friday – score or otherwise?

 

As long as we score one goal more than Wednesday that’ll do for me.

 

 

Thanks again to John for providing real insight with those answers.

Having picked up six points from a possible twenty-seven, are United in as a good a shape as we might think?

With key players injured – albeit not to the same degree as Wednesday – their side will not be as cohesive as Wilder would like.

In order to achieve a positive result, Lee Bullen and the rest of the Wednesday staff will have to have learned several important lessons from the September defeat.

Jos Luhukay’s disciplinarian approach will only help this squad so far; the away side will have to be well drilled to deal with United’s excellent pressing and Wilder’s unique tactical approach.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a United centre-back marching up the wing to deliver a cross in front of the North Stand before, and I certainly never want to again.

I’m assuming Jos Luhukay watched the September DVD for the first time this week – had he watched it last week he surely would have turned down Dejphon Chansiri’s overtures.

I look forward to Luhukay’s improvement of our team, but Friday will surely come too soon for him to affect any serious changes.

Stick with Owls Alive as we continue our build up over the next couple of days.


Hugh
Owls Alive
E-MAIL: owlsalive@gmail.com
Twitter: @OwlsAlive and @hugh_wragg

Images: SWFC, unless stated.


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