Jake Wright is used to being written-off and then battling back only to be discarded in favour of a more fashionable name.
After all, the centre-half joined Sheffield United when then manager Michael Appleton decided Oxford needed to move in a different direction. Twenty-one months later and three managers later, his former club are languishing in the lower reaches of the League One table. Wright, after helping Chris Wilder’s team win the title last season, is part of a squad only a point outside the Championship play-offs and mounting a serious push for the Premier League.
With fellow defender Richard Stearman nursing a hamstring injury, the 32-year-old is expected to be tasked with helping United take another step towards the top-flight at Barnsley this weekend.
“Sometimes, what is overlooked by supporters, is the pressure put on players by other players to play well,” Wilder, who also has the option of selecting Daniel Lafferty at centre-half, said. “If people have a dip, you do give them an opportunity because it happens to everybody. Sometimes players have to come out. But it is important they are always being pushed.”
Even Wilder, arguably Wright’s greatest cheerleader in football, has preferred Stearman for long periods of the present campaign. But, after working together at Halifax Town, the Kassam Stadium and now Bramall Lane, the Keighley-born defender’s return to action could prove especially timely for United as they attempt to secure a top six finish. Winning two-and-a-half times as many matches when Wright features compared to their success rate without, they also concede fewer goals in those he is involved in (1.04 per game) opposed to 1.7 if he remains on the bench or in the stands. Although it must be remembered the majority of Wright’s appearances have come in a lower division, United’s post-promotion win ratio (60 per cent) is still almost double when the Keighley born defender is selected than when not.
Curiously, they are also more prolific when Wright takes part; scoring an average of 1.7 goals per fixture opposed to 1.08 if he is left out.
It is a measure of Stearman’s progress since arriving in South Yorkshire that Wilder, despite this weight of statistical evidence, has often asked him to anchor United’s rearguard. Indeed, until Stearman limped-out of Monday’s draw with Cardiff City, United’s defence had been breached once in over seven-and-a-half hours of football.
“Richard has not been a nine out of ten all season but he rarely has a seven either,” Wilder said. “I’ve got a group of players who are all desperate to get in the team.”
“Jake has been brilliant for me too,” he added. “Every day in training and every time he plays. He’s ready, we’ve got other options as well, but Jake has done great.”