Way back in June, when the fixtures had just been published and players began plotting a course through the new campaign, one date in particular was the talk of Chris Basham’s household.
Saturday 9th September. Sunderland versus Sheffield United. The team he supported as a youngster against the club he now identifies with the most.
“I’m Sheffield United through and through, don’t worry about that. So, if you hear me say ‘we’, that’s who I’m talking about. As far as I’m concerned, it’s them and us.”
There was a time when Basham, talking over breakfast at the Steelphalt Academy, could not have imagined speaking in such sacrilegious terms, Born and bred in Hebburn, only 10 miles to the north, he spent his youth on the windswept terraces of Roker Park before, when the famous old ground was finally bulldozed into oblivion, making regular pilgrimages with his father to the Stadium of Light. Times, though, have changed. The season ticket has long since been relinquished and United, not Sunderland, are the focus of Basham’s affection. But it exactly that backstory which, from a personal perspective at least, makes tomorrow’s match such a big deal.
“My dad has kept his season ticket on so he can watch from his own seat up there,” Basham says. “But, to be honest, he comes to pretty much all of our games anyway. He likes to tell the fans around him ‘that’s my boy playing out there’ which is a nice feeling. My uncles all use it when he doesn’t. This is a great opportunity to play in front of the whole family.”
Fifth in the table and freshly promoted, United will enter the contest on a high. The same can not be said of Sunderland who, after meekly surrendering their Premier League status, appointed Simon Grayson as manager three months ago.
“It’s a good game because it’s so early,” Basham admits. “If they settle straight away, it will be a tough, tough game. But I think having them early is good to be honest and the same goes for a few of the other teams. When new managers come in, when they’ve been relegated, where are their heads at? Are they on a downer after coming out of the top-flight? This club is on the up though. We got 100 points last year and a manager who knows exactly what he wants.”
Basham, aged 29, might have settled in South Yorkshire but he remains a product of the North-East. Raised in an enclave of Sunderland supporters on the south bank of the Tyne, he enrolled on Newcastle United’s youth programme before turning professional with Bolton Wanderers. Four years later, after making his debut at the Stadium of Light, Basham headed for Blackpool before pitching-up at Bramall Lane when his contract at Bloomfield Road expired. It was a move which saw him follow in the footsteps of Jack English, another native of Hebburn, who won the FA Cup with United in 1915. Once home to a colliery and bustling shipyard, the town used to be a fertile breeding ground for boys looking to use sport as an escape from heavy industry. It is a sign of the times that, unlike former Arsenal great George Armstrong or Swansea City legend Wilfred Milne, Basham worked for McDonald’s before making the grade. Nevertheless, it is that experience of the ‘real world’ which makes him appreciate Chris Wilder’s down to earth approach.
“He just lets you get on with your own job,” Basham explains. “I wouldn’t say me personally, but with Couttsy (Paul Coutts), Sharpy (Billy Sharp) and Clarkey (Leon Clarke), they are people who manage their own dressing room.
“If he wants put his marker down, he will do and everyone listens, don’t get me wrong. But he lets the lads run their own dressing room. That is what he wants in his team. He wants people to have their own way of playing, but he wants the boys to manage themselves on the pitch and away from the training ground. That is a good thing, you are not looked over all the time. You need to live your life and play football as well.”
Like Grayson, Wilder inherited an under-performing squad when he took charge of United last summer. Having finished 11th in the table under his predecessor Nigel Adkins, the 49-year-old’s first season at the helm saw them crowned League One champions. Self-belief, not complex tactics or big-name signings, is the hallmark of Wilder’s regime.
“I don’t think it is classroom work; the gaffer’s really done that,” Basham continues. “The previous manager has, don’t get me wrong. I just think it is more on the training ground and he expresses what he wants us to do. We obviously do the set-pieces with Knilly all the time and the gaffer is out there. But I wouldn’t say he’s heavy on class work. He wants us to express ourselves and us personally as a group to. He does not want us to think too much about the opposition because that can lay a mocker on in terms of ‘should I really go into that space or not’ because of this or that player. He does not want teams to express themselves against us.”
Despite their lack of financial muscle, Basham is convinced Wilder’s preference for players with attitude means United can compete in a division where transfers fees of £10m and upwards are fast becoming the norm.
“Probably a big statement is John Lundstram, who has gone all the way down, after starting at Everton and then going to Oxford, and come back up. You can tell what a quality player he is and you can see that in training. It is great to have that kind of player.
“When we went to Marbella over the summer, the gaffer was telling us about Bournemouth and all their players who were down there with them and who have come all the way through. Not many players have taken their place off them so far and it is a good thing to have.
“I saw that with Blackpool when I joined them. There were people like Charlie Adam and David Vaughan who were outstanding and with them all the way through. It is having that belief and confidence to keep it going.”
Nathan Thomas, who arrived from Hartlepool following their slide into the National League, is cut from the same cloth.
“Nathan is very raw but very good at what he does,” Basham says of his fellow Northeasterner. “He’s very powerful as well. It’s nice to have someone like that to bed in. When he came, I wouldn’t say he was shy but he’s shining now, he’s blossoming. The boys have taken to him very well. We’re not ones for looking down on people. He’s come here the hard way.”
“We had a meeting the other day and he said going down was the worst feeling in his life,” Basham adds. “He knew he was going and he chose us after meeting with Knilly (assistant manager Alan Knill) and the gaffer. Now he’s says it’s the best group he’s been a part of and it’s great to hear that. He used to sit next to me in the changing room but because people were saying we were too close I had to send him somewhere else.”
Having worked under three different managers, reached a cup semi-final and tasted defeat in the play-offs before winning promotion last term, it comes as no surprise to hear Basham describe his journey with United as a “rollercoaster.”
“I think, for once in my time at this football club, we’re not going into a league thinking we are the bookies’ favourite,” he admits. “There is pressure, it’s just different. But you want pressure as a footballer. You want to go to these places, give your all and give a good account of yourselves. All the boys are buzzing about it. We’ll keep ourselves going and so far so good.”