How Sheffield United, a starless team from another age, gatecrashed the top six

I do like to see ‘umble, ordinary northern clubs doing well.

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How was your midwinter break? Lots of fun in Dubai with the lads? Bit of light training to keep in trim? With the Wags, har har. Or were they not allowed?

I went to Bequia in the West Indies, on my own, as I had fallen out with my girlfriend. But I did some warm-weather exercises and lifted loads of rum punches, hoping the various niggles in my wrists would settle down. The coaches, sorry I mean the editors, advised a few hundred words a day, just to keep in shape. 

It’s a long hard season for everyone involved in football. God, the sore arse you get watching five games on a weekend. It is such a joy to be back, and watching my new love – Sheffield United. Don’t you adore ‘em? I can’t keep  my eyes off their manager Chris Wilder. 

Modern Prem managers look like ex boy band members, such as Pep, or think they are a matinee idol, like José, or managing a heavy metal group, like Jürgen. Our Chris is so utterly English and ordinary, a dead ringer for the geezer what just painted my kitchen. Except Chris is a true Yorkshireman who played for Sheffield United (and ten other clubs) and now manages them.

The 1890s were the club’s golden age, and they were in the third division not so long ago. Chris got them promoted from the Championship last season and every back-page clever clogs tipped they would go to go straight back down again. Now look at them – in sixth place as I write, above Man Utd and Arsenal. If Man City lose their appeal against being banned from Europe for two years, Sheffield United could be there next season.

I do like to see ‘umble, ordinary northern clubs doing well. Manchester and Liverpool have dominated the domestic game for ages, but Manchester and Liverpool are metropolises and their clubs have masses of fans and have won loads of pots. I don’t look upon them as northern. Coming from Carlisle, I always considered them the Deep South, possibly Mediterranean.

Sheffield United, with its ancient ground and modest capacity, seems a real, old-fashioned English club, where British and Irish lads do the business, having been round the block a few times.

It rather ruined my rose-tinted image of them to find they are owned by a Saudi prince who bought a 50 per cent stake in 2013. Guess how much? One pound. He probably thought he’d been done. The promise was to invest in the club without splashing out on Fancy Dans. 

They have no stars. When I started watching them earlier this season, mainly for their name and lovely red and white stripes – so much a part of my boyhood – I did not recognise any player. They have a good goalie, Dean Henderson, but he is on loan from Man Utd, where he never made the first team.

Billy Sharp is their club captain and striker. He doesn’t score many goals in the Prem and is getting on, at 34. I thought I had heard of him, but was confusing him with a Scottish player with a similar name. Like most of the team, he has had a long career in lower-league clubs.

So how have they made the top six in the Prem – the hardest, richest, best league in the world, so they tell us?

Wilder takes a lot of credit. They have also developed a unique formation – overlapping centre backs. Full backs these days do overlap, but the centre back, the big bloke at the rear, stays put, minding the shop. Some are elegant, such as Van Dijk of Liverpool, but you don’t seem him much upfield, except for corners. 

The unusual formation came about a few seasons ago, when United were dominating most games in the lower leagues. One of two centre backs would suddenly go forward as a surprise tactic. It worked. Now two of their centre backs,  Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell, have been given licence to roam.

It won’t last, of course. How can a club with no expensive stars keep it up? But this season, the Big Six have faltered, except Liverpool. It has provided a chance for lesser lights, such as Leicester, Wolves, Burnley and, most surprising of all, Sheffield United, to shine. 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 21 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics

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