“Football is a simple game,” the late Bill Shankly once complained, “Complicated by idiots.”
It is a theory to which Chris Wilder clearly also subscribes after outlining how a straight-forward attitude towards training, team selection and tactics is helping Sheffield United acclimatise to life back in the Championship.
“Basically, we’ve just enjoyed it,” he said. “We’ve taken on the challenge. Everyone knows what they’re good at and how they are best equipped to play. So, instead of trying to be something we’re not, we’ve just focused on what we can do and doing it to the best of our ability.”
Third in the table after winning League One last season and only two points behind leaders Wolves, many pundits have attributed United’s flying start to their first second-tier campaign since 2011 to confidence and momentum. But while they are undoubtedly important - the move which led to Billy Sharp’s goal during Saturday’s 2-1 win over Reading would not have been attempted by a squad lacking self-belief - such explanations ignore the most important factors behind United’s renaissance under Wilder; recognising players perform better when they enjoy themselves and that convoluted strategies can be a recipe for disaster.
“We’ve just really enjoyed it,” the 50-year-old continued. “The games have been brilliant for everybody, the people involved and also the staff. Yes, some of them have been difficult but how can it be a slog when you’ve been out of the division for six seasons? How can it be a slog at anytime? Okay, so there are going to be times when you’re struggling but after all the s**t that gets chucked at you for not being in the Championship, all the times that you just have to sit there and take it, why shouldn’t we enjoy it? It makes no sense whatsoever to look at things in any other way.”
United, who will overtake their rivals from Molineux with a win at Leeds on Friday night, have taken maximum points from eight of their last 10 outings since being beaten by Cardiff 10 weeks ago. The beauty of their approach is its simplicity. Signings are fit for purpose, good performances rewarded and match strategies designed to fit the personnel at Wilder’s disposal rather than the other way around. Even negotiating a new contract, as David Brooks recently revealed after agreeing a new long-term deal, is now a pretty painless affair.
“I’m really relaxed about it,” Wilder said after the youngster put pen to paper. “I won’t get uptight if players don’t want to be here. I wasn’t last year with Che Adams and Dominic (Calvert-Lewin). I’m delighted for Dominic that he’s doing well with Everton. I don’t want players to leave here and people going ‘I hope they fail.’ That’s a poor attitude to have.”
Another reason behind United’s form over the past 14 months is, unlike Calvert-Lewin’s former manager Ronald Koeman, those tasked with overseeing Bramall Lane’s affairs ‘get’ the club. Wilder, his captain Billy Sharp and co-owner Kevin McCabe are all lifelong supporters. Others, including defenders Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham, have bought in to its ‘no egos’ philosophy.
“Other people will tell you when it was last like this,” Wilder said. “We are in the bubble. The supporters enjoy watching their team. There’s a good connection between club and fans. They recognise what we are trying to do and we appreciate and recognise their backing.”