It was like he’d never been away. Tony Agana, now 53, looked out across the immaculate Bramall Lane turf and as we chatted ahead of a Legends v Celebrities game to raise money for charity earlier this month, the glint in his eye was as strong as ever.
With 52 goals in 152 games for Sheffield United, and back to back promotions to Division One, Agana is a true Legend of the Lane but it would be fascinating to observe the reaction if his time was 30 years later and, after a spell in non-league and working for an insurance company, he made just 15 appearances elsewhere before moving to United.
The comparison struck me when Chris Wilder’s recruitment for the Championship began.
Striker Ched Evans, winger Nathan Thomas and left-back Enda Stevens are on board so far, with the likes of Southend’s Ryan Leonard also understood to be on Wilder’s hit-list.
All players who embody Wilder’s policy of signing players on the way up, rather than on the way down. A common sense approach, one borne out of experience and, it has to be said, results.
Wilder hasn’t won 199 points, 59 league games and two titles out of sheer good luck and guesswork so, as he approaches the Championship with a squad high on confidence and even higher on togetherness, he was always unlikely to rip it up and start chucking money at mercenaries.
Yes, Evans was relegated with Chesterfield last season, but no Blade can deny there is a player in there after his former exploits with United and after a one-on-one meeting, Wilder was impressed by his personality, too. A hungry, talented striker with a point to prove is never a bad thing, no matter where they’ve come from.
Thomas, too, will have earned a huge tick next to his name by rejecting interest from Middlesbrough, his boyhood club, for more playing opportunities at Bramall Lane. Stevens was relegated on goal difference, on the final day of the season, with Doncaster in his last Championship stint and having won the League Two title with Portsmouth last season, won’t want a repeat.
Neither will United fans, of their disastrous 2010/11 campaign when, bogged down by too many has-beens, loan players and four managerial changes, they slipped into League One with barely a whimper. Under Wilder, with a firm hand on the tiller, that won’t happen again.
This is not an admission that United will shop exclusively in the lower leagues this season, either; key men in last season’s historic title triumph, like Simon Moore, Dan Lafferty, Jack O’Connell and Caolan Lavery, came from the leagues above, and others will this summer.
It is more a recognition of Wilder’s canny management, armed with information from trusted recruitment chief Paul Mitchell. Wilder saw first-hand the impact of Agana and strike partner Brian Deane, plucked from relative obscurity at Doncaster Rovers.
Down the corridor from his office at Bramall Lane he’ll bump into Tony Currie, United’s greatest ever player who was an unknown teenager when he made the move to South Yorkshire.
Booker, Reece, Brown, Dearden, Rogers, Hemsley, Dearden; all players in the Wilder mould who grew with United.
Thomas may not quite hit the heights of Currie and only time will tell if Evans is remembered in the same way Deane is when he hangs up his boots. But a group of young, hungry Blades players unleashed by a fired up manager could surprise the Championship next season. And this writer, for one, can’t wait to see it.