When he was placed on the transfer list earlier this season, Kieron Freeman feared the worst.
After all, by his own admission, the Sheffield United defender had grown accustomed to feeling like something a manager has discovered stuck to the bottom of their shoe.
But, rather than signalling the beginning of the end, what could have been an awkward meeting with Chris Wilder turned out to be a defining moment in Freeman’s career.
“I’ve been treated like s**t at times in the past and I did think ‘here we go again,’” he says. “But when the gaffer spoke to me, he was brilliant. He explained everything, was really open about the situation, and then told me I could still train with the first team. From that moment on, I had the utmost respect for him.”
Respect underpins Freeman’s relationship with Wilder who, only hours after taking charge of the League One club seven months ago, told the 24-year-old he was free to leave Bramall Lane. Twenty-seven games and exactly 31 weeks later, the former Derby County wing-back enters tonight’s game against Coventry City as a regular in United’s starting eleven and determined to repay Wilder for his honesty and faith.
“Because of the way the gaffer treated me, I don’t want to let him down,” Freeman continues. “Lots of people, when they tell you they can go, get you to train with the under-12’s if they’re even bothered about you at all. But right from the get-go, when he said I’d still be working with the lads, I knew I’d be giving him my all. If I’d been shoved aside then, even if I’d been the best trainer at the club, it wouldn’t have mattered because nobody would have seen it. But I worked hard and he put me back in the team.”
MORE BLADES NEWS
It is a measure of Wilder’s belief in Freeman’s ability, and recognition of his own fallibility, that John Brayford was loaned to Burton Albion earlier this term. Brayford, a £1.5m signing from Cardiff City, had been named as one of Wilder’s “dressing room lieutenants” on the eve of the present campaign before, following a series of unconvincing displays, being declared surplus to requirements himself.
Paul Coutts, another player United were initially prepared to trade, has also benefited from Wilder’s forthright but fair-minded approach. The midfielder, who worked with Freeman at the iPro Stadium, failed to impress during the dying embers of Nigel Adkins’ reign. But, after being paired alongside John Fleck, is now one of the first names on United’s team sheet and half of a partnership Wilder describes as the best in the division “bar none.”
“They’re both Scottish, they both understand each other and so the chemistry between them might come from that,” Freeman jokes. “Seriously, Paul was doing it last year as well, I see him ever day in training and people wouldn’t believe how good he is, but things aren’t always as simple as they seem. One of the things the gaffer is really good at is maximising your ability and making sure everybody plays to their strengths. Couttsy’s got different people around him now. Flecky always wants the ball, I want the ball, Duff (Mark Duffy) wants the ball in front of him and so does Laffs (Daniel Lafferty) on the other side. If you’ve only got one player who wants the ball and five who don’t then how does that help him? He has to stop, check and then hear people saying he’s slow or can’t make a decision. But it was never like that at all.”
“Communication is a big thing here now,” Freeman continues. “The gaffer and Knilly (assistant Alan Knill) are really good at that. They’ve given us a way to play and everybody knows, if we don’t want to do it, then we won’t be involved. Last season, I played 20 odd games, got dropped for one or two and then got bombed-out completely. There was no conversation, now communication and that was that. It’s different now though.
“We do lots of good work and training is so intense. The gaffer used to be a right back so I’ve got to impress. He’s been putting on quite a few sessions and working on our crossing. I’m going to have to go back and look on You Tube at some of his games because, at the minute, he’s telling us he was a young David Beckham!”
Freeman, Coutts and Fleck, who arrived from City earlier this summer, are almost certain to feature at the Ricoh Arena tonight. United will climb to second in the League One table, level on points with leaders Scunthorpe, if they beat Mark Venus’ side but, regardless of the final result, have already confirmed themselves as genuine promotion contenders. Unlike the squad which, under Adkins’ stewardship, limped to an 11th place finish last term.
“I don’t know if it’s because we trust each other more, trusting in our ability, but for me personally, it’s much more enjoyable coming into work now,” says Freeman. “I think you can see that we’re enjoying what we do. I’d play a game every single day of the week if I could and, with some of the stuff we’re producing, who wouldn’t want to be in a team like this? It must be so hard for the gaffer and Knilly to pick but that’s good for us all.”