Interview conducted prior to Sheffield United's win over Rotherham United on Saturday
The last couple of seasons have been remarkable for Sheffield United, having finished just six points outside the play-off places after winning League One in 2016/17 and establishing themselves as genuine title contenders this term. Just how good a season has this been for the club?
I think it’s been an excellent season for Sheffield United. They’ve built on last season with quality additions in key areas, which has really strengthened things, so, as a unit, they are even better now. Oliver Norwood has come in and had a giant impact, John Egan has come in and had a similar impact, Dean Henderson has been terrific in goal this season and they’ve now got plenty of good options up front. David McGoldrick was a bit of a surprise, but now they’ve got Scott Hogan too, though he can’t even really get a game at the moment. Everybody has raised their standards, I would say, and I would also praise their game management; they were great last year, though now they are just better at seeing games through.
As far as head-to-heads go, later this month The Blades face fellow promotion-hopefuls Leeds United and Bristol City, before they close the campaign with more favourable fixtures, on paper. Owing to that, is there a sense of belief they can nick one of the two automatic promotion berths?
Yes, very much so. They do have some challenging fixtures to come, which are going to be enormous. The Leeds United match on Saturday and even the game against Rotherham United this weekend just gone was big because Rotherham were one of The Blades’ toughest tests of the season earlier in the campaign. The angst comes with that whenever Sheffield United seem to get a positive result, so to do Leeds and Norwich City! I know it’s very close, but to put the biggest emphasis on winning at Elland Road is probably a little bit disrespectful to the other teams they are going to play between now and the end of the season. But also, it’s not going to be definitive for them or Sheffield United.
Billy Sharp is right up there with the top scorers in the Championship, having scored 22 goals at the time of writing. It must sit well with supporters that both their captain and manager are both Blades fans, guiding the club to success?
They love it and quite rightly so, as well. The two of them come across superbly - they are dyed in the wool Sheffield United supporters who have had a huge influence on the team for the past couple of years. Billy was brought in by Nigel Adkins and in the season that they were awful, essentially, he still scored in excess of 20 goals. Being made captain of the team by Chris Wilder was a masterstroke and since that time, he and the team have gone from strength to strength. They are led by the likes of Sharp, but I’m sure he’d concede he’s not the only one in the dressing room because they are a fantastic group. In terms of personality and leadership, it’s no surprise they are doing what they are doing. They are an excellent team, an excellent group of professional footballers and Sharp is the spearhead of that. The fans have bought into it too and all of those things put together mean Billy Sharp is fast-approaching legendary status at Sheffield United Football Club, but that’s probably a big thing to say while he’s still playing. When, eventually, he retires, as he will do, three, four or five years from now, I’m sure he will be afforded such status.
Brentford’s struggles on the road this season have been in stark contrast to their excellent home form, where they’ve won seven in a row in all competitions. With that in mind, how do you think Chris Wilder’s side will approach the fixture?
Chris Wilder, generally, tries to approach every game in the same manner. They try to get at teams, regardless of whether they are good on the road or not, quickly at Bramall Lane. They like the wing-backs to push on, the centre-halves to get forward quickly and they also like one of either Kieran Dowell or Mark Duffy to try and control the ball 30 yards from the opposition goal. When it works, and invariably it has worked, regardless of opposition, it can almost seem like they are swarmed. If Brentford have any anxieties on the road, then that’s one way Sheffield United will try to exploit that. If they get a couple of early goals, The Blades will feel very confident of victory, but it’s not always panned out that clearly. When they are on it, though, they can play the ball round with such intensity that it can just seem like one-way traffic, at times.
How are the Blades likely to set up at Bramall Lane?
Unless there is a major shock, for most of the last two or three years, Chris Wilder has played three centre-halves, five in midfield – four if we are being really pedantic – one slightly further forward of that and two centre-forwards. So it’ll be either 3-5-2, or 3-4-1-2, as you wish. John Egan – formerly of Brentford, of course – has had a tremendous season. Unnoticeably fantastic, if that makes sense. He’s an 8/10 every week but he doesn’t get the recognition because he’s not one of the defenders that bombs forward, that’s done by Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell, also formerly of Brentford’s parish.
What’s your score prediction for Tuesday’s game?
Well, I think Sheffield United are on it at the moment. The performance at West Brom away from home was terrific, they’ve not conceded a goal at home since Boxing Day and they are one of three teams that can, realistically get automatic promotion. Brentford are a decent team – when they went down to Griffin Park, it was an intriguing match and they gave the Blades problems. I don’t think it’ll be as open as that, but I think Sheffield United will win 2-0, or something like that.