James Shield's Sheffield United Column: Why career paths reveal what makes Chris Wilder's squad tick
Not so long ago, as we discussed whether or not Daniel Lafferty would be named in the latest Northern Ireland squad, a colleague and I discovered a mutual admiration for footballers who make it the second time around.
The wing-back, who perhaps surprisingly given his contribution to Sheffield United’s push for Championship football was only placed on stand-by for this month’s World Cup qualifier with Norway, did exactly that. To a lesser extent, so did James Hanson, Mark Duffy, Jake Wright and Paul Coutts too.
Finding himself training on a park pitch while earning a pittance at Derry City must have been a chastening experience for Lafferty who started his career in palatial surroundings at Celtic. But, rather than wallowing in self-pity and wondering what might have been, the 27-year-old puffed out his chest, pulled back his shoulders and won a move to Burnley before, seven months ago, arriving at Bramall Lane.
Lafferty’s story, a triumph of persistence and perseverance, is a lesson to every young player who initially fails to make the grade. (The Steelphalt Academy’s Futures programme, which watched graduate Keenan Ferguson help United’s under-18’s lift the PDL League Two title on Tuesday, is specifically designed for this purpose).
More pertinently, however, it reveals what makes Chris Wilder’s squad such a formidable unit. Eight points clear at the top of the table and nine ahead of Bolton Wanderers in third, United enter tomorrow’s game against Charlton Athletic searching for their fourth victory in five outings following wins over Phil Parkinson’s side, Oxford and, most recently, Swindon Town.
Barring the meeting with Wanderers, Wilder’s players have overcome set-backs in all of those matches. They fell behind at the Kassam Stadium and, before Jay O’Shea and Paul Coutts pounced, relinquished a two goal lead in Wiltshire. On both occasions, though, they kept working, kept pushing and straddled potentially difficult hurdles; a quality which could prove crucial between now and the end of the campaign.
Five of United’s remaining nine matches are against clubs in the bottom third of the table. With Wilder’s side scoring over 70 goals since August, opponents are likely to concede that the best form of defence is attack. Swindon reached this conclusion and so, to a lesser extent, did Oxford too. Averaging nearly half a point more from fixtures against clubs ranked 17th and below than their nearest rival, United are equipped to overcome this challenge.
And that is why, despite being only the fifth most successful team in top eight versus top eight clashes, they are favourites to reach the Championship next term.