SHEFFIELD UNITED: Blades can learn Ibrox lesson

Lifesaver: Tom Cowan, footballer turned Sheffield fireman
Lifesaver: Tom Cowan, footballer turned Sheffield fireman

LEAGUE One is a competition of small margins and stark contrasts.

A division where financial turnovers differ dramatically yet only 11 points separate first place from tenth.

As the likes of Sheffield United and Portsmouth have often discovered to their cost, history, tradition and reputation counts for little when David becomes used to battling Goliath.

Stature can intimidate. But, in some circumstances, it can also inspire.

Tom Cowan, the former United defender, has tasted life on both sides of the tracks having also represented Glasgow Rangers, Carlisle and Clyde during his professional career.

“The first thing that’s drummed into you at Ibrox is that no matter who you are playing, it’s their cup final,” he told The Star. “United, in their own way, are going to be experiencing the same thing now.

“Rangers always reminded you that, as a result, you had to treat the game in exactly the same way. Like a cup final too.

“It was a big change for me because I’d come from being part-time at Clyde and working for British Steel. Rangers didn’t expect to lose and, if they did, then it was viewed as a really big deal.

“It’s something you have to get used to and deal with but the staff always tell you that, if you are a Rangers player and you perform to your maximum, then the chances are you’ll come through.

“I’m sure lads at United now are reminded of the same things.”

Tomorrow’s meeting between United and Yeovil Town illustrates perfectly the gulf which exists between the have’s and have not’s in English football’s third tier.

The visitors, beaten 1-0 at Huish Park in September boast an average attendance of 3831 compared to 18343 for their hosts. Town’s record signing, Pablo Bastianini, cost 16 times less than United’s most expensive ever player.

Of course, plenty of choppy water has passed under the bridge since Bramall Lane’s board of directors lavished £4m on James Beattie six years ago.

And, as Wilson will testify, appearances can be deceptive. The introduction of Salary Cost Management Protocol means that, just like his counterpart Gary Johnson, United’s manager must also sell players before he can buy.

Cowan, who made 53 appearances for the South Yorkshire club before departing in 1994, insisted it is not just the governing body’s drive for financial prudence which could prove problematic for his former employers this term.

“When you come to a big ground and go into a big game there’s such an adrenalin rush,” he said. “It’s easy to forget that if you’re not the underdog.

“Adrenalin works in different ways and although there isn’t a professional footballer around who will ever give less than 100 per cent, the adrenalin charge someone who is used to playing in front of a few thousand every week gets when they are working on a bigger stage can give them an extra edge.

“It’s vitally important that the team they’re up against has to match that. I’ve got no doubts that is what United have found out over the past couple of years and that’s what they look to do every single game themselves.”

“I’ll give you an example of how adrenalin can completely take you over,” Cowan added. “I played in two Old Firm derbies but strangely both of them were at Celtic.

“For the first one, we arrived at the ground on the coach and I had an inkling I might be involved but only on the bench. Then, when the team was read out in the dressing room and I heard my name it was like ‘Whoosh.’ I just thought ‘Blimey,’ or words to that effect, ‘Here we go.’

“During the match one of our lads went down injured and I was stood by him watching what was going on.

“I was only when I got home and watched the highlights that night on the television that I noticed that lots of Celtic fans in the stand directly behind me were spitting on me. The back of my shirt was absolutely covered but I didn’t notice at the time.

“I was oblivious to what was going on right then.”

Not that United, or any other supposed superpower for that matter, should shy away from their status. Cowan, who arrived at Bramall Lane in 1991, revealed how Graeme Souness embraced Rangers stature within the Scottish game during his spell in charge at Ibrox.

“He enjoyed it and I think that’s what you’ve got to do,” Cowan, who joined United from the 54 time Scottish champions in 1991, said. “Graeme brought in a rule that even when you turned up every morning for training, every single player had to be wearing a club collar and tie.

“People might think the lads hated it but, do you know what, we all loved it. And that was because it made you feel as if you were part of something special.

“It just reinforced that message and rammed it home. That’s why Walter Smith, when he took over, kept that tradition on.”

Cowan, who now works for the Fire Service in Sheffield, added: “If you’re seen as being the team to beat it presents a challenge but you can also work the situation to your advantage.”

Teams and ref

UNITED (possible): Long, McMahon, Higginbotham, Maguire, Williams, Murphy, Doyle, McDonald, Flynn, Kitson, Blackman. (4-4-2).

YEOVIL (possible): Stech, Hinds, McAllister, Webster, Ayling, Burn, Blizzard, G Williams, Foley, Dolan, Hayter. (4-4-2).

DAVID PHILIPS (West Sussex): Mr Philips booked four players, including Marcus Williams, when Sheffield United beat Leyton Orient in October.