Standing in a stairwell at Sheffield United’s training complex, Billy Sharp has a smile etched across his face.
But, as laughter echoes along the corridor leading to the first team squad’s canteen, it disappears quickly when asked to compare life under Chris Wilder with the previous regime.
“I don’t like speaking about last year,” he glowers. “But training wasn’t good enough, full stop. There were too many players not doing it. This year, if that happens, then the gaffer singles them out and they start doing it pretty quickly. There’s no hiding place.”
Life, Sharp admits, is pretty good at Bramall Lane right now. Appointed captain of the club he has supported since childhood during the close season, the centre-forward and his team mates enter tomorrow’s game against Charlton Athletic second in the table and unbeaten in 14 League One games. Twelve months ago, though, United were in a pretty dark place. Wilder’s predecessor Nigel Adkins, despite his seemingly impeccable credentials, struggled for ideas and results before leading them to a mid-table finish and being replaced by the 49-year-old in May. Although a change in formation and personnel have both been cited as factors behind the club’s dramatic upturn in fortunes following a chequered start to the season, Sharp says the real reason is actually pretty mundane.
“Everybody is playing with a smile on their face at the moment. I did an appearance with the gaffer in the summer and I knew, before a ball was even kicked, that’s we’d be able to grind out results. You could just tell that, even when we didn’t play well, we’d have that in us. There is a big difference. The main thing is out there on the training pitch, the gaffer wants it like a game day and that creates good habits. Habits that we are taking into the matches themselves.”
United will have to be at their ruthless, relentless best against Charlton tomorrow. The hosts, who appointed Karl Robinson as manager yesterday, have scored seven goals in two fixtures since parting company with Russell Slade earlier this month and, while United were struggling to kill-off nine man Bury, overwhelmed Bristol Rovers 5-1 in midweek.
“He wants us to start games at a high tempo and, when you do that, if you get a good lead, then it gives everybody a really good lift,” Sharp continues. “There are no days off, he’s always telling us that, and he’s right. He’s out there in the week shouting like he is on the touchline during games.”
Wilder, previously of Halifax Town, Oxford and Northampton, is often painted as a domineering, dictatorial type of manager. Despite admitting he can be intense at times, Sharp insists that notion is far from the truth. Recollecting his half-time addresses during recent fixtures against Shrewsbury and Chesterfield, where United trailed 1-0 at the break, Sharp says: “I praised his team talk at Chesterfield recently. I thought he was going to come in and start throwing tea cups around but he was really calm and just told us ‘stay patient, do what you do and it will come.’ Afterwards, he didn’t say a word. It was almost like ‘I told you so.’ Then, against Shrewsbury, he wasn’t happy at half-time. Obviously I’d missed a penalty to make the game safe. We won but it could have been easier.”
“He’s given lots of responsibility to myself and other senior players,” Sharp continues. “If he needs to step in, then he will do. There have been a few occasions this season when he has stepped in, when he’d had a few words about something. But it’s not happened that often.”
Sharp, aged 30, embarked upon his third spell with United after being signed by Adkins at the beginning of last season. Despite scoring 21 times in only 48 appearances, he cut a frustrated figure as results went south although a series of brutally frank interviews, criticising performances and colleagues alike, persuaded Wilder to hand him the armband after taking charge.
Although some observers feared the extra responsibility might curb his prowess in front of goal, the players himself believes it has been beneficial instead.
“I actually think it’s he me. There’s a few games where I could quite easily have been booked. But I’ve remembered I’m captain and that I need to set an example. So I’ve managed to keep my discipline. It’s the same off the pitch too, you’ve got to set an example. I’ve said it before, being captain of this football club is a dream. It would be nice to do something this season. I’m just a small piece of the jigsaw. We all want the same thing.”
Robinson does not officially take charge until Monday despite visiting Charlton’s training base yesterday. Slade, his predecessor, is a former United coach.
“Russell was here when I was a kid,” Sharp remembers. “He was really good. Am surprised he got sacked and I’m not surprised. The owner down there seems to be sacking managers every other week. I’m sure he’ll get another job soon.”