Alan Knill thinks it might be time to redefine pressure.
His reason being that, rather than something to shy away from, it should actually be embraced.
“Listen, this is where we all want to be. You’ve got to take it on board and enjoy it. Every day, no matter what job you do, there is pressure. Whether that’s football, working in a factory or whatever else. If you can’t enjoy being where we are, well, let’s be honest, it’s a bit of a struggle isn’t it.”
Five points clear at the top of the League One table with 15 games remaining, life is pretty good at Sheffield United right now. But, speaking ahead of tonight’s visit to Bristol Rovers, Chris Wilder’s assistant admitted his theory about coping with high expectations is about to face a very stern test. Darrell Clarke’s side caused all manner of problems at Bramall Lane earlier this season before, following Jermaine Easter’s dismissal, eventually succumbing to a narrow defeat.
“Bristol Rovers are a team we know well,” Knill, deputising for Wilder at yesterday’s pre-match media conference, said. “They will always have a right go at you. It was a tough game at home and away will be no different. But, if we play well, then hopefully it will be a tough game for them as well.”
United stretched their lead over second-placed Scunthorpe when they triumphed 1-0 at Peterborough last weekend. Billy Sharp’s 20th goal of the season proved enough to settle a breathless contest between two attack-minded teams. Ultimately, though, United prevailed thanks to their impermeable defence.
“It was an amazing win and, I’ve got to say, a really tough game,” Knill added.
“I remember Chris saying on the line ‘It’s going to take one goal to win it.’ Fortunately it fell to us.”
Having been breached eight times in three outings during what Wilder recently described as a “mini-blip”, United’s rearguard travelled to the south-west hoping to complete a hat-trick of clean sheets after shutting-out AFC Wimbledon earlier this month.
“The clean sheets are massive,” Knill said. “For us to get to where we want to be, we need to keep those. We had a long chat with the lads at the back beforehand, some of the goals we’d conceded we weren’t happy with and certain things we weren’t happy with, so we did some work on the training pitch. But you can only do so much work on the training ground. It’s the players themselves who take that out on the pitch.”
“The big bit is the balance,” Knill added. “It’s chopped and changed through injury and suspension but whoever has come in as looked comfortable. So we’re fortunate in that regard. Even if we change from a three to a four to a two, they are comfortable with that as well.”
Jake Wright’s return to the starting eleven has coincided with United’s improved performances at the back.
With Ethan Ebanks-Landell pressing for a recall after recovering from a hip problem Knill, himself a former centre-half, said: “Jake is a proper professional. Whatever he is doing here, he’s done all the way through his career. He’s a leader and he helps and organises. The game has changed but you’re a defender first surely? I’ve got to say, though, he’s also really good on the ball. He can move it around the pitch. And, more than anything, he’s just a calming influence with the younger players. But he’s not the only one.”
“That group is a real good group,” Knill added. “And that’s what they are, a group of defenders. They rarely question, they just get their heads down and get on with it. If you’ve got really good players that want to work and want to be better, that’s a good position to be in.
“It’s very rare that we come off the training ground and think ‘That was rubbish today.’ Normally we say ‘That was really good.’ You don’t always get that approach. I’ve been a clubs before with good players but this lots demands of each other ever single day. That’s why it’s worked so far. And they want to do more. Sometimes we have to pull them back. But to see good players want to work even more, well, you can’t put a price on that.”
United’s attack has performed consistently all season, scoring 70 goals in 32 outings. The arrival of Jay O’Shea from Chesterfield - he made his debut as a second-half substitute at London Road - has provided Wilder with another tantalising option going forward.
“Jay is a good player, he knows the league and he scores goals,” Knill said. “It wasn’t a difficult decision for us when we knew we could get him.
“We’re not asking players to do things they can’t do. Probably the first question we ask a player is ‘Where do you think you are best?’ Then, if that’s where they are, then it’s down to the player isn’t. No round pegs in square holes.”