Sheffield United: How a life-changing game of non-league football helped Jake Wright prepare for the Steel City derby

Jake Wright is looking forward to the derby: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Jake Wright is looking forward to the derby: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

If hunger and desire really do settle derbies, then Sheffield United’s most influential performer tomorrow could well be Jake Wright.

After all, having spent long periods of his career earning a pittance in non-league football, the centre-half knows only too well how results can make a tangible difference to people’s lives.

Speaking ahead of United’s visit to Hillsborough, the first meeting between Chris Wilder’s side and Sheffield Wednesday for five years, Wright explained why that means he will approach the biggest game of his life with no fear.

“I can remember playing for Oxford against York City in the Conference play-off final,” he said. “Okay, in terms of size and stature there’s no comparison with this one but, in many ways, it was an even more pressurised game. “The difference between staying in that division and going into League Two was huge. You knew the result was going to have a huge bearing on your family, not just you, because of the security and what you might earn. There’s experience to be gained from every single match and hopefully I can use the knowledge I got from that one now.”

Wright has emerged as a key member of United’s first team squad since moving to Bramall Lane last summer. Although his arrival created little fanfare at the time, Wilder, who managed the 31-year-old at Halifax Town and the Kassam Stadium, knew exactly what he was acquiring. Wright’s organisational skills proved crucial during last term’s march to the League One title and, after replacing the injured Richard Stearman, have been equally effective in the Championship.

“We are playing for supporters, each other, ourselves the gaffer and the staff,” Wright said. “Everyone is going to give everything, but we are doing it daily and every week. Since the gaffer has taken over, I don’t think there are many performances where our commitment can be questioned. If any.”

Although they will travel across the city as underdogs, Wright believes the fact both Wilder and his captain Billy Sharp are United supporters could give them an edge over Carlos Carvahal’s side. Despite facing a race against time to declare himself fit, Sharp has also been playing the role of cheerleader behind the scenes this week.

“Billy has been mentioning this game ever since last year,” Wright admitted. “He was desperate for us to get promoted and them not to be, so that this game could come about. He has got what he wanted and hopefully, he will be fit for the weekend. I think it helps that a lot of the boys live here as well. They hear off other people and fans and read the papers and stuff. Everyone knows how much it means.”

Wright relocated during the close season after being handed an extended contract. Speaking at United’s pre-match media briefing on Wednesday, he explained how encouraging players to socialise together has helped Wilder deliver success.

“We have all got good relationships,” Wright said. “We will have a laugh and a joke, but we know there are times when you can’t step over the line with staff and how far to go.

“But it is really good and the team spirit we have got between the players and the staff has shown. It helps in those situations where it is not going so well. At the start of last year, where we lost our first four, we could have easily turned on each other and pointed the finger. But no-one did. We stuck together and put the run together and it carried its way through the season.”

Despite losing to Norwich City last weekend, United are sixth in the table, two points and three places above Wednesday.

“They are at home and expected to be up there at the top,” Wright said. “I don’t know if many people gave us an expectation when we got promoted to be doing so well as we are. So the pressure is definitely on them, but we are going there hoping to get a win and three points. They have been in this league a lot longer than us and in the play-offs in the last two years. They are going to be the favourites at home.”