Billy Sharp did plenty of talking following last month’s game against Bradford City.
Attitude, age and former team mate Matthew Kilgallon all cropped-up during the conversation but one remark, delivered as an aside to a joke about how being handed the armband would supposedly stifle his attacking threat, really did stand-out.
“I don’t feel like I’m the only captain here,” United’s leading goalscorer said. “I feel as if I’m out there with lots of others including John Fleck, Jake Wright and Chris Basham. There’s lots different of voices. Everybody contributes.”
A few days later, watching a re-run of Chelsea’s 2-1 victory at Old Trafford which saw them wrestle control of the 2010 Premier League title race, a thought occurred to me. Is this, the number of leaders within Chris Wilder’s squad, the real reason for their results this season? Rather, as is often suggested, more intensive training sessions or the manager’s unashamedly old school approach?
United, who enter tomorrow’s game against Charlton Athletic second in the table and unbeaten in league competition for nearly 14 weeks, underwent a dramatic makeover following Wilder’s appointment during the close season. And, as a consequence, are a much more intimidating beast than the one which limped to an 11th placed finish last term. Wright, among 13 new players signed by the 49-year-old, might not grab the headlines like Fleck, Ethan Ebanks-Landell or even his skipper. But, going about his business in quiet, under-stated fashion, the former Oxford defender has made a series of game-changing interventions during United’s impressive recent run.
United, despite failing to score their usual flurry of goals against Shrewsbury and Bury this week, have demonstrated great purpose, self-belief and resolve. When Carlo Ancelotti masterminded that pivotal win over Manchester United, he had numerous individuals - John Terry, Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard - who could impose their will on games. The two teams are incomparable in terms of talent but Wilder can probably say the same.
Simple instructions, conveyed face to face rather than via a tactics board or video analysis session, have undoubtedly benefited United’s players this season. The coaching staff’s willingness to treat them like adults rather than naughty schoolchildren has gone down well too. But these methods only work if, as Sharp revealed after that memorable tussle at Valley Parade, the right people are in the dressing room. Personality is key.