At this stage of the season, every Blade usually has that feeling of ‘here we go again.’ 5 years of abject failure since we dropped into the third tier of English football normally fills us with a sense of anxiety, merely hoping that this was the start of something special.
Finally, we know what this feels like again. After a record breaking season, where we broke the 100 point barrier playing some of the best football at Bramall Lane for many a year, the boys kicked off their pre-season campaign with a thumping 9-0 win over local team at Stocksbridge Park Steels. Major credit goes to the club for putting the friendly on, giving the Blades valuable fitness time but more importantly giving the club a major cash injection before the proper season has begun!
Basked in glorious sunshine, the lads came out to warm applause at Bracken Moor. It was notable to point out that Wilder probably got the loudest cheer, alongside the return of Ched Evans, who let out a small grin as he took to the pitch. He wouldn’t feature in the game as he is still on his own tailored training programme, but it was good to see him back in the fold.
The boss decided to play two different XI’s for each half, with arguably the first half resembling something closer to our strongest XI. Th second half would see a mixture of youth and new signings combined with squad players from the previous season. I’ll leave the two sides below to give you a taster of what was expected for each half.
I’m not going to go into too much detail about match events; Inevitably it was a routine win against a semi-professional team that put up a spirited effort, particularly in the first half. So I’m going to summarise the scorers and talk about particular players for the Blades that I thought either stood out or looked a little shaky. Of course, take what I say with a pinch of salt; it’s the first game back so Chris and Alan will be experimenting.
The first half XI went into half-time with the score at 3-0; Billy Sharp opening the scoring with a good finish into to the top left corner after a layoff from Leon Clarke. Leon himself added a brace before the end of the half.
The second half very much the same up until the 80th minute; Lavery got on the score sheet with a brace. The goals really started to fly in after it appeared Stocksbridge Park Steels gave up. Caolan wrapped up his hat-trick, before youngster David Brooks scored two of his own and new signing Enda Stevens heading into the far corner.
David Brooks – a touch of class
I couldn’t start anywhere else other than David Brooks. Returning from a successful Toulon tournament with the England U20’s team, Wilder expressed that the youngster could force his way into the Blades squad. He certainly looks like a youngster, but definitely does not play like one! In the 45 minutes he was on the pitch he was able to demonstrate an ability to skip round his man with ease on numerous occasions. On top of this, he showed a maturity in front of goal, slotting one in the bottom corner and another into the top corner. He has natural ability that could provide the platform for great things. On his performance yesterday I wouldn’t be surprised if he did make an appearance for the Blades in the Championship this season.
George Baldock also impresses
Another player that impressed me was new right back George Baldock. I remember him from last seasons home game at the Lane against MK Dons, and he infuriated me with his pace and his trickery that caused Lafferty a lot of problems. He didn’t always rely on these attributes however; he played some tidy football with fellow MK Dons recruit Carruthers, frequently getting him behind the defence. While I feel Freeman deserves to be in the starting XI, I do think Baldock is going to push him for the starting XI if he can build on his performance yesterday.
A new berth for Samir?
Leading nicely on, one of the first thing I noticed is the different role Samir Carruthers was playing in yesterday. Last season we were used to his cameo roles from the bench, frequently going on mazy runs to get behind the defence; no one can forget that mesmerising run he went on against Bolton which nearly lead to a goal.
Yesterday however he was playing deeper, the Coutts role if you like. He definitely didn’t disappoint; he has a quality range of passing that rivals Coutts and Fleck. He kept us ticking, playing neat and tidy 1 2’s with his fellow team-mates. Obviously I know the teams were mixed up leaving a free space in the midfield, but I do think we could see Samir playing a deeper role this season. He has the technical ability to do this, and he also looks a lot slimmer; he never really excelled when he managed to get a starting place last season. We will have to see, but he has the versatility to play a range of roles in the middle of the park.
Sam Graham looks assured
Whilst our academy has produced some gems in recent years, more often than not the players we produce aren’t blessed with height and strength; I would say the exception to the case are Harry Maguire and potentially Kyle Walker. So it was refreshing to see a tall centre half in the form of Sam Graham; a youngster who has signed a professional contract after completing his 2 year scholarship programme. I was surprised with how settled he looks; he didn’t do anything flashy, just did the simple things of winning his battles and passing the ball on. He very nearly got caught trying to beat his man at one point, but I see that as a good thing! Having the confidence to do that at his age must be a positive. He has the height but would benefit from filling out a little bit and piling on the muscle to compete with the physicality of the Championship, but he has the ability to really kick on with the Blades.
A mixed bag from Nathan Thomas
Our first signing after promotion was Nathan Thomas, a young and exciting winger from relegated Hartlepool. I didn’t necessarily think he did too bad yesterday; he has a good first touch and knows how to beat a player. My only concern is that he isn’t a wing back; at times O’ Connell was looking for an outlet and Thomas was a little bit too high up the pitch, making him a redundant option. Again, this is a pre-season game so we are at the stage of experimenting with the new players. I don’t think we will use Thomas as a wing back; he needs to play higher up the pitch so we can see the exciting attacking capabilities from his time at Hartlepool.
The other new additions
Richard Stearman had a fairly quiet game, didn’t have much to do. He just kept it steady and offloaded the ball when he had to. Enda Stevens’ role in the game was curious. In the second half he was on the left hand side of the back 3, with Lafferty in his usual LWB role. They inter-changed a lot throughout the half, with Enda offering some endearing overlapping for Lafferty. He got on the scorehseet with a neat header into the far corner during the closing stages. It will be interesting to see how we play Enda throughout the season and whether Wilder sees him as a centre back or, more likely as competition for the LWB with Daniel Lafferty.
Onto the next one.