Norwich take on an in-form Sheffield United at Bramall Lane this Saturday, who’ve won 10 of their previous 11 matches at home. Possibly the perfect reverse Along Come Norwich moment. Sounds like there’s plenty to fear though, Jon Punt talks to Blades fan Gavin Puszczalowskyi about a tale of two Flecks and just how good Chris Wilder really is…
Jon: Sheffield steel, Yorkshire grit, Northern resolve. Oh, how we’ve longed for Norwich to show a bit of that lately. While our start to the season has been hit and miss, the Blades have exceeded all the neutrals' expectations. What's your early success been down to?
Gavin: Our great start is down to a number of factors.
1. Winning and winning early. Beating Brentford at home on the opening day of the season was a massive catalyst as it instantly instilled belief and confidence. We followed that up with defeats at Boro and Cardiff, 2 very tough places to go and a nice intro back to the Championship, but back at Bramall Lane we beat Barnsley & Derby with convincing performances and now we have just won 2 games back to back on the road. Norwich will be taking on a Blades side full of confidence and belief on Saturday but confidence and belief that is built on a solid foundation of hard work and taking nothing for granted.
2. Chris Wilder. Born a Blade and making himself a legend. This guy can do no wrong, he has come in to a highly pressurised job and succeeded where other managers with better CV's failed. He has united the fans and the club and made Bramall Lane a fortress. If the Blades win on Saturday it will be 11 wins in 12 at home in the league.
3. Team work. You will play against sides this season with better individuals but you will be hard pushed to play against better teams. All 11 players are working hard for each other and pulling in the same direction. We have a system that works and works very well, 5-3-2 with roaming-surging-forward-wing backs, everybody knows how we play but it's trying to stop it that is difficult.
4. Being underestimated. We're the club that was last in the Championship 6 years ago and we are often reminded by our city neighbours that it's a very different league from now to then. We got stuck in the quick-sand that is League 1 and struggled to get out. We have players you could walk past in the street and not recognise. So the likes of Brentford, Derby, Sunderland and even Bolton on Tuesday night have all thought "we should win this one" and haven't. It often amazes me how we are a bad side in the opinion of football fans of teams we have just beat. At the moment we are a surprise package but that will change the longer we keep our good form going.
Jon: Shit. Shitty shit shit. You see, for some unknown reason, I was supremely confident we could come to Bramall Lane and nick something, maybe even win. All those words you’ve just gone and done have blown the wind from my patchwork sails. Your talk of hard graft and underestimating teams is the very thing Norwich traditionally struggle against.
I agree with your comments about Chris Wilder. Having watched the footage of him on deadline day while wheeling and dealing he felt like a straight forward and honest manager. Do you worry the perceived bigger clubs will come calling soon?
Gavin: I am not worried in the slightest. It's expected that bigger clubs, although there are only 2 bigger than Sheffield United in the world and they both play in Spain (ahem), will be interested. We had it with Sunderland at the start of the season and there was a slight rumour about Crystal Palace being interested very recently but Chris Wilder has just signed a new contract, he is a Blade first, manager 2nd. He is a Sheffielder born and bred and when he managed Northampton Town he still lived in the city and travelled down every day.
The Blades for him are a project very close to his heart and it's a highly successful one at the moment. He is building something and attaining legend status while doing it. If he goes out around Sheffield on a night out, for what he has achieved already he will never ever have to buy himself a drink ever again.
To walk away from all of that to start again at another club that does not hold the same emotional attachment he has with the Blades would for me be incomprehensible unless it was a top (top top top) Premier League team. But Chris Wilder is British so that won't happen.
Jon: Quite the impressive guy then. Upon reviewing your squad a couple of things stand out. First up, the fact you have all British/Irish born players. Do you think this was out of deliberate design, perhaps bringing in players that know the divisions and can stand up to the physicality of the Football League?
Gavin: I think it's one of those facts that was revealed recently most people including us Blades were unaware of until it was pointed out.
Chris Wilder likes to sign...
1. Young and hungry players with a point to prove. Most signings are 20-25 and are in the lower league with potential and the desire and a hunger to better their career. Wilder gets them in, improves them and makes them better.
2. Captains or former captains. This is how he builds a team. We have recently signed John Lundstram from Oxford United. He was made their captain last season at the age of 22. It's not just about ability on the pitch, it's how you are off it. There is no better proof of how good you are as a team member by being the captain and the leader.
3. Players of the Year. Wilder buys the best that a club has to offer. John Fleck is a great example. Player of the Year at Coventry City who we picked up on a free which is still an astounding bit of business. Leon Clarke is another example. We recently tried to sign Ryan Leonard from Southend United who aged just 25, has won their Player of the Season 3 times.
The fact that a lot of these players are British/Irish is just a coincidence but I'm sure it does help with the rough and tumble of the English game.
Jon: Ahhhh, there you said it. That perfect word. One that all Norwich fans love…. “Fleck”. John of course is nephew to Canaries legend Robert. Our Flecky rates your Flecky very highly, I guess from what you’ve said that’s a view shared by Blades fans? I seem to remember he started his career well and was heralded as the next big thing Scotland had to offer as an attacking threat, yet he’s reinvented himself a bit since?
Gavin: Ahhh, now you mentioned it too. 1991/92, first game of the season at Carrow Road, Norwich v Blades, 2-2 draw and Robert Fleck scored both goals for you. I was there. Scarred at travelling such a long way for 1 point. I'm not sure he has reinvented himself but sometimes careers can rise and fall given the teams and the management you play for at the time. It's a fact, some managers are better at getting the best out of players than others. John Fleck was succeeding personally in a Coventry City side that were failing and struggling. On the pitch problems for the Sky Blues were not only matched by but over shadowed by problems off it and I think Fleck may have lost his way in all of that.
He is now at a much less turbulent club, pulling the strings in midfield and he has Chris Wilder as his manager. He is adored at Sheffield United and his ability to pass a ball and dictate play in midfield is very much appreciated. He is only 26 and has played a lot of football. Another typical Wilder signing. Young, hungry and with potential to fulfil.
And he is just starting to come into form again and get to grips with the Championship. John Fleck and Paul Coutts in midfield (a player Chris Wilder transfer listed immediately on his arrival) have been an absolute revelation for us.
Jon: Yeah I remember that 2-2 well. We had the foundations of the side that would go on to conquer Bayern in Europe, although Fleck cruelly left us for Chelsea just before that, only to be replaced by Mark Robins, goal machine extraordinaire. Those. Were. The. Days.
However, back to the present. Norwich have struggled on the road so far, aerial bombardments have been our weakness. I’m guessing Clayton Donaldson will be employed to exploit that. Anyone else we should be wary of?
Gavin: We are not renowned for scoring goals with headers. We like to get round the sides and behind, turn the defence and make them face their own goal and whip crosses in. Donaldson will be more of a threat on the floor than on the air, just look at the 2 goals he scored on his debut at Sunderland.
You obviously need to keep an eye on Billy Sharp but the problems you may face are our defenders. When we attack they come up and join in and swarm around like bees, finding space and over loading dangerous areas with players.
Kieron Freeman is our right wing back who scored 11 goals in all competitions last season after scoring just 4 goals in his previous 6 years. He, like our summer signing Enda Stevens on the left side, loves to get ahead of the ball and create options and space. (By the way, both these wing backs were rested and didn't play in the 1-0 at Bolton.)
Look at the goal we scored at home in the 1-0 against Barnsley. Fleck in midfield lays it off to Enda Stevens who is on the left who with one touch lays it down the line to be crossed in by our CENTRE HALF Jack O'Connell who over laps the wing back to put in a cross that Sharp scores from. That is where teams struggle with picking up our runners from defence when we attack.
Our last 3 goals have all come from debutants too. 2 for Donaldson on his debut at Sunderland and 1 from Cameron Carter-Vickers at Bolton, a centre half on loan from Spurs who made his debut on Tuesday night. Sadly I don't think we have any more debutants to play on Saturday though.
Jon: I am now terrified. Actually terrified. United sound bloody brilliant. Thanks for that. We have picked up two clean sheets at home in the last week though, a welcome return to actually defending the ball, following hidings on the road to Villa and Millwall. The problem for Norwich has been about finding that balance between being potent in the final third and keeping it tight. Go on, tell us how we unlock the door against your lot…..
Gavin: How do you unlock the door against the Blades.......this is like committing treason.
You need to stop the runners and hustle and bustle for every ball in every minute. That's what we do. You need to win your own player v player contests and not allow us to play in midfield. If you can pin back our own wing backs and stop them being a threat going forward then that will help but also have the ability to exploit any gaps we leave going forward with counter attacking football.
Teams have started playing a 5-3-2 formation to match us and go toe-to-toe. Sunderland tried it and Bolton did. If you do that you could be in trouble as we have done so effectively we could just be better at it than you. Grab the ball in midfield, don't let us use it and pick up the runners when we attack. And hope that Billy Sharp has an off day.
Jon: Excellent advice, I’ll pass that onto our coaching team, thanks. Now you’ve scared me about United’s threat though, is there anyone who worries you in Norwich’s ranks?
Gavin: Obviously you fear a goal threat so that is Nelson Oliveira. I don't want any more this-is-my-name antics at Bramall Lane.
Wes Hoolahan has always seemed to found the back of the net against us and indeed, scored a hat-trick v the Blades when we last played at Carrow Road in 2010. I know he has been on the bench of late but he always seems to do well against us.
My main fear is this might be a game when you get it right and start to build some form. It was a disappointing draw at home to Burton on Tuesday but this is a great chance for you to start to get a run of games together where are remain unbeaten and start to pick up points but having conceded 8 goals in your 2 previous away games, I fancy our chances obviously.
Jon: Yeah like I say I was pretty confident before we spoke (with no good reason), now I’m thinking 1-1 might be an excellent result. Score prediction from you?
Gavin: We're on a very good run of form, you're conceding goals so I have to stick with the Blades; 2-0. Donaldson (if he plays, missed out on Tuesday night due to injury) and Sharp.
Thanks to Gavin for taking the time to talk to us. You can follow him on Twitter @gavp77 to read more of his excellent observations about the Blades (if you really want to see stuff about the Blades, obvs.)
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