Sheffield United: Kevin Gage on the Blades phenomenon of Kieron Freeman

Kieron Freeman
Kieron Freeman

Kevin Gage is far too modest to accept the notion that he was a trendsetter for a generation of full-backs who followed in his footsteps at Sheffield United.

But Gage, who played more than 150 times for United and has since become a fan of the club, is uniquely placed to observe the change in culture that has transformed one of football’s least desirable positions into a key part of the modern game.

His case in point is Kieron Freeman, the current Blades right-back who’s fought his way in from the cold at Bramall Lane and scored 10 goals, helping to underpin his side’s title push.

“Kieron has been the oustanding player this season, for me,” Gage said.

“You have to look at how he started the season and the difference to then and now. I spoke to Chris (manager Wilder) at the start of the season and I’m not giving away any confidences here, but he wasn’t sure about Kieron.

“Nothing’s decided then, of course, but he was on the transfer list and then got his chance when John Brayford went out on loan. And my, how he’s taken that chance.

“He was here a few years before and no-one seemed really sure if he was a better right-back or a winger, but now he does both in one and the system United play suits him perfectly. His attacking play is brilliant - he gets on the end of so much and finishes well - but his defending has been superb, too, and he’s made some fantastic tackles.

“He brings a dynamism to the team and he’s been the standout player for me. The adulation and respect he’s earned, from where he came from at the start of the season, has been well deserved.”

Gage, a paid-up member of the defender’s union, made good cases too for 26-goal skipper Billy Sharp and the midfield duo of Paul Coutts and John Fleck, while Mark Duffy, Chris Basham, Jack O’Connell and Jake Wright could all legitimately win the Blades Player of the Year award in a potentially title-winning season.

Gage himself won the Player-of-the-Year gong at Bramall Lane in 1995 after scoring five times from right-back, and still keeps a keen eye on his adopted Blades as a matchday host and a columnist for this newspaper.

Kevin Gage

Kevin Gage

Born in Chiswick, West London, he began life as a footballer in the No 10 role - the Duffy of his era - before Wimbledon’s direct style rendered midfield largely redundant, and Dave Bassett converted him to right-back.

“My instinct was always to get forward at every opportunity, because that’s what I enjoyed doing,” he remembers.

“I used to drive Bassett mad with it. At United, I replaced a lad called Gary Peters who was an out-and-out defender, and never crossed the halfway line. But the game’s changed that much that you can’t get away with being just a defender at right-back anymore.

“Maybe 15 or 20 years ago, you might have got away with a robust right or left-back who won a few tackles and headers, because he’d have had to deal with an opposition winger. How many teams play with wingers anymore?

“So the system at United is great for Kieron, because it gives him absolute licence to bomb forward. I used to love doing that, but would I say I was ahead of my time? I don’t think so! I have England Youth caps at home from my days as an attacking midfielder, so it used to come naturally to me.”

Despite their paths rarely crossing during their brief time together as players in South Yorkshire, Wilder was keen to canvass Gage’s opinion shortly after taking charge at Bramall Lane - along with another legend of the Lane.

“I think it was a day or so after Chris got the job, and I got a call from Andy Pack, the former media guy at United,” Gage remembers.

“He said Chris wanted to chat to me and Keith Edwards, and get a feel about things at United that he’d missed while being away. He’d spoken to Harry [Bassett] too and wanted my opinion as a relative ‘outsider’, not on the coaching staff or anything like that.

“Keith sees a lot of home and away games and isn’t ever short of an opinion, but I was coming in fresh, so to speak, and I was honoured. Funnily enough, one of the first things he said was that he was going to play 4-4-2 and circumstances dictated that he changed that, but I hope they carry on playing 3-5-2 in the Championship, if and when they get there.

“Everyone seems so comfortable with the system that I can’t see Chris changing it, either. I think they might have to do a bit more defending next year because they won’t run away with the league, and Freeman and Daniel Lafferty might not be able to get forward quite as much as they have this year.

“But the three centre-halves set-up works perfectly. It’s very solid, as is Simon Moore in goal. Maybe we’ll have to look at the three in midfield and rein them in a little, and the centre-halves might have to rein themselves in a little bit too, but it’s an exciting time to be a Blade.”

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