Earlier this summer, when Chris Wilder sat down to plot a course through the new Championship season, tomorrow’s meeting with Barnsley will have been circled in bright red ink.
Because these are the games, not visits to Middlesbrough or even Cardiff City for that matter, which will decide whether Sheffield United sink, tread water or swim.
It was a point not lost on Wilder when he addressed the media at the Steelphalt Academy yesterday. Nor Jamal Blackman who, despite tasting defeat in his last two outings, insists confidence is still high behind the scenes.
“We don’t like losing it and it’s something we don’t accept,” he says. “But has it changed how we think? No. The atmosphere is still really good and we appreciate we’ve got to get on with things, knuckle down and take care of business on the pitch.”
The visit of a Barnsley team which, just like United, does not have millions to lavish on players represents an obvious opportunity to do exactly that. Although Paul Heckingbottom’s side were not being taken lightly when Wilder and his staff began talking tactics last night, there will have been a recognition that, unlike United’s most recent fixtures, this one is more of a level playing field. Not that Blackman thinks the odds appear insurmountable against the competition’s biggest or more minted names.
“There’s not been much in them,” the goalkeeper, assessing United’s trips to Teesside and the Welsh capital, says. “Okay, the final outcomes haven’t been what we wanted but I haven’t looked at what’s happened and thought ‘We’re in trouble here.’ The building blocks are there. We’ve just got to tidy up on a few things and get better, like the gaffer has said, at both ends of the pitch. It’s the little things really and we’ll be working hard to put those right.”
Small details make a big difference in the second-tier of English football. The margins for error, compared to the level below, are uncomfortably slim. United, last season’s runaway League One champions, beat Brentford on the opening weekend of the new campaign before losing, in hugely controversial circumstances, at the Riverside six days ago. Seventy-two hours later, they succumbed 2-0 to a City team whose defence has not been breached since April 28. United enjoyed more possession than Neil Warnock’s charges but created fewer clear-cut openings; a statistic, Wilder acknowledged, proved they must become more ruthless and street-smart.
Blackman, on-loan from Chelsea, agrees.
“When we go forward, we’ve got to make things happen more,” he says. “And then, at the other end, we’ve got to stay focused at all times. Nobody is to blame because we all work as a group. There are some really good players here and, even though most of us are getting used to the division, you know that will come. You can’t fault the work ethic or the spirit here at all, either. And that, no matter where you are, counts for a lot.”
Application, industry and good intentions, however, only take you so far. One thing United do appear to lack, as Nathaniel Mendez-Laing highlighted in the cruellest of fashions earlier this week, is a player capable of producing a moment of magic. Something out of nothing. The trouble is, although the former Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder did not cost a penny, as a general rule of thumb they command big money. Wilder, who has seen Richard Stearman ruled-out with a hamstring complaint, does not have the resources at his disposal to unearth one in the transfer market. But David Brooks and Ched Evans, who both impressed off the bench against City, could feature in Wilder’s latest starting eleven as he looks to inject the ‘X-Factor’ into United’s work.
Blackman, aged 23, has won the respect of colleagues and coaching staff alike since moving to South Yorkshire nearly a month ago. But, as Wilder revealed after witnessing his initiation ceremony, the youngster’s choice of music is not universally acclaimed.
“I heard the manager call my choice of song a load of rubbish,” Blackman laughs. “Okay, singing probably isn’t my forte but I’ve heard people a lot worse. I did something from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air because I know all the words to that one; I know exactly how the thing goes. Joking aside, being made to sing in front of the rest of the lads is a good idea because it helps you settle in. You’re up there, on your own, and there’s nowhere to hide. Everyone has a laugh but it brings you closer together I think.”
Blackman has already forged a close bond with fellow goalkeepers Jake Eastwood and Simon Moore who, after also being ruled-out by injury, is expected to return shortly.
“I’ll have a battle on my hands then but that’s fine,” he says. “I’ve got one on now with Jake, to be fair, but that’s fine because it’s what football is about: fighting hard.”