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FOOTBALL'S FRONT LINES

How two local lads have taken Sheffield United to the brink of the big time

Football's Front Lines: "It’s unprecedented, this kind of connection with the fans. They are us and we are them."

“They are us and we are them.”

Every football fan yearns for a connection with the players and managers they idolise unconditionally.

At Sheffield United, the barrier between supporters and their heroes has eroded since local boy Chris Wilder took the reins nearly three years ago.


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Bramall Lane in all its glory

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Bramall Lane in all its glory

Wilder, just like top scorer Billy Sharp, is Sheffield born and bred.

He represented the club over two spells in the 1980s and 1990s.

Now the Blades are on the cusp of the big time after overcoming the unpredictable chaos of the Championship.

The Tony Currie Stand

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The Tony Currie Stand

Prior to my visit to Bramall Lane last Friday, their automatic hopes hung in the balance, but back-to-back wins coupled with shock successive defeats for Yorkshire rivals Leeds has put them in the driving seat with just two games remaining.

And for a vociferous fan base, having ‘one of their own’ in both the manager’s hot seat and at the top of their scoring charts has made all the difference.

“I had no expectations of us going for automatic promotion whatsoever,” Ben Humphries, aka Travelling Blade, told me before the Blades kicked off against Nottingham Forest.

“It was a very toxic atmosphere before Wilder came in. There was no unity between the fans and the players and management.

“But we walked it in League One with 100 points in his first season.

“Having Sharp ‘the Blade’ and Wilder ‘the Blade’ at the club is fantastic and we’re just going from strength to strength.”

Blades fans are dreaming

Reuters
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Blades fans are dreaming

Wilder is now one of the hottest properties within the English managerial system having thrived at just about every role he’s taken.

The 51-year-old brought Oxford United into the Football League before saving Northampton from the abyss of relegation into Non-League.

The season after he took the Cobblers up with 99 points, before going a point better with the Blades to clinch promotion to the Championship.

100 points in League One

PA:Press Association
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100 points in League One

Wilder’s record is still effectively blemish free – and the biggest feather in his cap is now agonisingly close.

“It all stems from the manager,” Jay Socik, aka Blades Analytics, said. “There’s a connection with the fans that isn’t at most clubs because the manager is one of our own.

“Billy [Sharp] goes out for beers with Blades and Chris [Wilder] still lives in Sheffield and takes the bus around.

“It’s unprecedented, this kind of connection with the fans. They are us and we are them.”

The Blades, perhaps because of their association with the likes of Neil Warnock, have lazily been branded a long-ball team this season.

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Warnock era

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The Warnock era

Wilder has masterminded a subtle tactical revolution of his own since taking the reins at his boyhood club, utilising overlapping centre-backs in a three-man defence to bamboozle their opponents.

“We play some of the greatest football I’ve seen as a United fan in my lifetime,” Jay adds.

“Our whole game plan is to make overloads wherever we are on the pitch. It’s little triangles, it’s intelligent and it’s really down to the nth degree.”

Sharp as a Blade

Reuters
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Sharp as a Blade

While Jack Grealish, Teemu Pukki and Pablo Hernandez have deservedly garnered individual praise this season, United’s emphasis on the collective is their strongest asset.

Their playing budget is lower than approximately two thirds of the rest of the Championship, while their entire squad was put together for less than the £7m Leeds paid for Patrick Bamford.

The likes of Sharp, David McGoldrick and Chris Basham are all relative journeymen at this level who have bought into Wilder’s infectious ethos.

Been there, done that

Reuters
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Been there, done that

“We don’t have a wealth of quality,” Jay admits.

“We don’t have Pablo Hernandez – an ex-Champions League player – or the Norwich type of recruitment.

“What we do have is a bunch of guys that work hard to a system and strategy and implement it better than probably most in the league.

“Regardless of where we finish, those guys have given us every ounce and as fans you can’t ask for more.”

Jags is a United legend

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Jags is a United legend

Leeds’ loss is the Blades’ gain, with the local rivals going hammer and tong all of 2019 for that final automatic promotion spot.

Ben, who goes home and away with their fanatical support, believes the Premier League is a far bleaker environment without Yorkshire representation.

Prepared for the big time

PA:Press Association
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Prepared for the big time

“Our rivalry with Wednesday is just pure hatred and almost gets out of hand at times,” he says. “But the one with Leeds – there’s a certain level of respect between the two clubs.

“I’m glad our battle this season has been with Leeds because it’s a proper Yorkshire rivalry.

“They’ve both experienced hardship recently but they’re also both proper partisan clubs which the Premier League is really lacking right now.”

There is a sense that the Blades and Leeds have embarked on this journey to the Premier League’s pearly gates together, just as they did 29 years ago.

Back where they belong?

Reuters
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Back where they belong?

That was during Wilder’s playing days at Bramall Lane but, while both tasted promotion in 1990, only one club is guaranteed the ultimate prize this time around.

A 2-0 win over Nottingham Forest on Easter Friday was followed by a resounding victory at Hull three days later to put the Blades in the box seat.

With Leeds hosting in-form Aston Villa this weekend, Wilder’s side know the’ll be effectively promoted if they beat already relegated Ipswich.

Wilder and Sharp are already club heroes, but if they can secure a place at the top table they will earn immortality within Blades folklore.

Two local lads fulfilling their boyhood dreams.

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