As one of the most amiable members of Chris Wilder’s first team squad, Chris Basham always begins interviews with a warm handshake.
But tomorrow, when his former club Bolton Wanderers visit Bramall Lane, he aims to help Sheffield United grab the race for Championship football by the scruff of the neck.
“The position the two teams are in, this is going to be a vitally important game,” he says. “It’s only three points but it’s a big three points and the gaffer won’t let us take our foot off the gas.”
Basham, whose performances in defence and midfield have been a driving force behind United’s climb to the summit of the table, is sitting in a video analysis room at the Steelphalt Academy as he discusses life, League One football and lessons learned as a fledging professional in Greater Manchester. Despite being born and bred on the banks of the Tyne in Hebburn before enrolling on Newcastle United’s youth programme, the 28-year-old started his career with Wanderers after failing to make the grade at St James’ Park. His journey to South Yorkshire, via Stafford Rangers, Rochdale and a four season spell with Blackpool, is testament to the hardworking mentality which has seen him become a regular starter under Nigel Clough, Nigel Adkins and now, after being appointed last summer, Wilder too.
Having taken the decision to move lock, stock and barrel to the region after leaving Bloomfield Road 32 months ago, Basham has invested time, energy and no little emotion in trying to help United claw themselves out of the third tier. It means, not only is he perfectly placed to explain why Wilder is succeeding where others have failed, but also that there is no chance of his loyalty being tested when Wanderers, now managed by Phil Parkinson, attempt to complete a hat-trick of victories over United this term.
“I’m almost part of the fixtures and fittings here now aren’t I? That how it feels at least,” Basham laughs. “That’s something I’m proud to say because I’ve really taken to the area, the people and, of course, this great football club. The same goes for my family too. I’ve seen a lot during my time here and hopefully that’s going to continue because, fingers crossed, things are on the up.”
Basham has appeared in both of United’s visits to Wanderers earlier this season and twice come away having tasted defeat. Jay Spearing, who scored the only goal of the game when these two teams met on the opening day of the campaign, is unavailable for selection due to suspension and losing his captain is a bitter blow to Parkinson’s hopes of recording a third straight win. But Basham, who also featured during December’s return in the FA Cup, says United are still a very different proposition to the side Wanderers, two places and seven points behind them in the rankings faced, way back in August.
“We owe Bolton one after what happened at their place. The gaffer has been here a while now and, together with his staff, has really got his message across. On top of that he (Wilder) is also a fan of the club and that means he gives nothing less than 100 per cent, no matter what he does. Training is really full on and that translates itself into performances. They say you usually play as you train and, in fairness, I think that’s true.”
United have won 19 of their 31 matches since falling victim to Spearing’s wonder strike, losing only four times and scoring 59 goals. But Basham uses a draw, against Bristol Rovers earlier this month, to explain the ethics Wilder has instilled in a squad which limped to an 11th placed finish last term.
“I thought if we had got a goal down there, we’d have gone on to get two or three. Credit to them, though, we had to do the nasty, gritty stuff at the end of it. We scrambled, there was Billy (Sharp) getting cut and me getting trampled on the line. I think that type of thing has been missing over the years. It showed what this team is prepared to do to get results.”
United’s attack, led by captain Billy Sharp, is the most prolific in the division. Wanderers, however, boast its most uncharitable defence. Although those statistics, coupled with the club’s close proximity in the table, suggest an intriguing game is in prospect, Basham says Parkinson’s side will be unable to drive a wedge between Wilder’s players and their support.
“Coming over here, living over here, it can be quite aggressive if things aren’t going well. People aren’t scared to tell you. But the connection between us and the fans is fantastic. Even when we got beat at Walsall a while back, they stayed right behind and applauded us off at the end. That’s because they could see we gave it everything which, under this manager, is what he expects of you.”