The former Leeds and Rotherham boss on the rise of Sheffield United
WHEN Leeds lost 2-1 to Sheffield United at the end of October, I said that anyone who finished above the Blades would win promotion.
Nothing I’ve seen since has changed my mind. They are the best side I’ve seen at Elland Road and the best side I’ve seen in the Championship.
Forget all this stuff about confidence and momentum. They’re adventurous. There’s no fear in how they play. Their energy levels are out of this world.
I watch Leeds regularly and, for me, that’s what makes them an inferior team. When they haven’t got the ball, they haven’t got enough players who want it back.
At Blades, they all think like that and I mean right from the front. For Leon Clarke and Billy Sharp, there’s no such thing as a bad ball. They chase absolutely everything. But it’s not just energy – they do it with brains. They pen back fours down one side, then cut off the out ball.
Sheffield United actually remind me very much of the Barnsley side I played in that won promotion under Danny Wilson in 1997. If you came to play, we’d pass it around and out football you. But if you came to scrap, we’d scrap with you. We had the lot – and so do United.
I first came up against Chris Wilder a decade ago, when he was in charge at Halifax and I was at Scarborough.
Even then, his sides always worked harder than the opposition. They could all play. And he had this knack of turning unwanted, halfdecent players into quality footballers.
Look at Clarke. Everybody’s had him. Nobody’s got the best out of him. Now, he’s a completely different animal.
Billy has always been a top-class pro, but Chris has eked a little bit extra out. Then there’s lads like Chris Basham and Paul Coutts they’ve been around for years but suddenly look at the peak of their powers. For me, though, the biggest revelation has been Mark Duffy. He’s got a manager’s head on a player’s shoulders.
He understands his role. He’s very clever. He cuts the passing lines off for the opposition but he also gets in and around people.
He’s a throwback to how a midfielder should play. He doesn’t just protect his back four and keep everything safe. He goes after people. And the biggest thing of all is the kid can play – his range of passing is incredible.
At 32, he’s a great example of a late developer. Sometimes, you can get to 26-27 before the penny drops. Only then do you start understanding the game, your own body, what you’re capable of and what you aren’t. The division itself.
You start noticing things. For instance, you pick the ball up in the Championship and you’re under pressure. Pick the ball up in the Premier League and there’s nobody to pass to because everyone’s marked. Subtleties like that take time to learn.
It happened to Jonathan Hogg at Huddersfield last year. He was an average midfield player – a steady eddie who never had a shocker but never won you a game. Then bang! Class act.
I was similar. I played the vast majority of my career at Championship level and I was no more than a ‘good’ player at that level. Then I went to Barnsley in my late twenties, gradually understood my position and got more relaxed and confident in my own skin. After that, I kicked on.
Chris has got a lot of players there at that stage in their careers and, to be quite honest, it gives them a huge advantage.
The division is in flux. There’s a lot of overseas investment, a lot of overseas players. And those people don’t understand the level – yet.
In time, they will. But right now, being a British-based manager with experienced British players allows a club to capitalise. They are ripe for promotion.
REVELATION: Sheffield United’s Mark Duffy celebrates scoring against Sheffield Wednesday