Whisper it quietly but, with six new players to integrate into their squad, Sheffield United did plenty of socialising during their recent visit to La Manga.
Nothing raucous, over-the-top or liable to generate front page headlines. Simply, as George Long explained ahead of tonight’s pre-season friendly against Derby County, a series of low key get-togethers designed to help Chris Wilder’s latest signings feel at home.
“We got a lot of down time over there and so that was a real chance to get to know each other off the pitch too. “It can be daunting when you come into a new club so it’s important that lads like myself, who have been here for a while, help them settle in. There’s no groups of old lads and new lads. Everyone has knitted together and so that’s good.”
Wilder has overhauled United’s team since taking charge earlier this summer and, barring one hiccup at FC Halifax Town a week ago, his bold decision-making seems to be having the desired effect. Having started their preparations for the forthcoming League One campaign with a victory over Stocksbridge Park Steels, United beat a Murcia Representative XI after travelling to Spain before overcoming Grismby Town last weekend.
Although Billy Sharp’s performance dominated the post-match agenda at Blundell Park - the centre-forward scored twice and helped create Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s opener - Long’s return from injury also proved a talking point. The goalkeeper missed United’s first three warm-up fixtures after damaging a knee but received the all-clear to feature against Paul Hurst’s side.
“It felt great to be back out there,” Long said. “I’ve missed a few games but everything feels good.
“I was out for a precaution really. I’ve been training the majority of pre-season and just building things up.”
With Chris Hussey, Jack O’Connell and James Wilson among those to join United in recent weeks, Long’s recovery means coaching staff can begin accelerating the process of organising their new look back four.
“It’s important to be playing with the lads at the back,” he acknowledged. “You can’t replicate game time. There are three new boys in the back four that I’ve not worked with before and so it’s all about building relationships and getting those lines of communication going.
“You need to get to know each other and, the more games you play, the more familiar you get. Training also helps in that regard, especially the eleven a side or the shape sessions. But game time, really, is key.Looking forward to playing behind Jack and James. I thought they were excellent at Grimsby.”
Derby, now managed by former Sheffield Wednesday defender Nigel Pearson, are expected to pose United’s toughest test before next month’s League One opener against Bolton Wanderers. The visitors finished fifth in the Championship table last term and Long said: “Derby will be another step up. They’ve got quality players and they’ll be coming here wanting to test themselves. Like us, they’ll be going for promotion. They are a Championship club and you’d expect them to be there or there abouts.”
A life-long Sheffield Wednesday supporter, Hurst ensured Grimsby possessed plenty of bite when they hosted United last weekend. Pearson’s presence should also ensure this evening’s contest (kick-off 7.45pm) has just the right amount of edge.
“It’s good when the games have that,” Long said. “Pre-season doesn’t quite have to same bite as a league fixture but we try to get as close to it as we possibly can. That way, we are up and running by the time we go to Bolton.”