Sheffield United may only have played the last game of their triumphant League One campaign on Sunday, but already former Blades hitman Andy Walker is talking up the South Yorkshire giants’ hopes of a second successive promotion next term.
Ladbrokes News caught up with the former Scotland international, who netted regularly for the Blades during a two-year stint from 1996 to 1998. But while Walker and co. fell a whisker short of promotion to the Premier League, the Glaswegian thinks the current crop have every chance of completing the double-bounce.
Here’s Andy’s take on all things Bramall Lane…
Ladbrokes News: The Blades have smashed League One this season – and victory over Chesterfield on Sunday saw them reach the 100-point mark. What’s impressed you most about the side overall?
Andy Walker: It’s an obvious one, but – consistency. In previous seasons, they’ve had good runs of results and then faltered. But they’ve been up at the top of the table throughout this campaign – there to be shot at, especially as the biggest club in the division.
So, to meet that pressure head on and keep producing results has been enormously impressive – and it’s testament to the mentality that Chris Wilder has brought to the club.
In terms of the playing squad, they’ve been very strong throughout – but Billy Sharp is undoubtedly the main man. He’s been rightly acknowledged in the PFA League One Team of the Year, along with several other United players. 30 goals in the division is almost unheard of.
John Fleck has also had an excellent campaign – and as a Scot, I’m especially pleased to see him thriving with the Blades. He’s a player I saw a lot of during his days at Rangers, and he’s an extremely creative and positive presence in midfield.
The supporters at the club has been terrific as well. Averaging crowds of over 21,000 in League One just shows the size of the club and the belief within Bramall Lane right now.
LN: They’ve proved far too good for the third tier and will have one of the biggest fanbases at Championship level. Provided Chris Wilder recruits well again this summer – is there any reason they can’t do the double promotion? It’s happened before…
AW: For me, there’s no reason United shouldn’t be in the same position that Sheffield Wednesday are, come next season. They’ve got the set-up and infrastructure to challenge for promotion. And the double bounce has been done in recent years – Norwich City and Southampton being two such examples.
It’s obviously a tough ask to go up twice in a row, but if any club have a shot at that feat, it’s Sheffield United. Chris Wilder has an extraordinary way of going about his business, and a fantastic win percentage.
Chris has shown he’s got a key eye in the transfer market, and can grab a bargain – you’ve seen that with guys like Fleck, Jack O’Connell and Simon Moore coming in during the last 12 months.
I’ve no doubt they’ll survive comfortably in the second-tier, but I’d love to see them maintain that winning momentum they’ve had this season, and challenging for promotion. And provided they continue on the same path, they absolutely can do that.
LN: On the subject of Chris Wilder – he obviously won the League Two title with Northampton Town last season, the League One title with Sheff Utd this term. You’ve mentioned his impressive win percentage, but what makes him such a success in management?
AW: I think he’s hugely respected by his players – not just for his record as a manager, but also in his way of dealing with them.
He’s utilised that squad very well, too. They’ve regularly been playing two games a week – Saturday and midweek – and he’s done really well in terms of rotating and knowing what’s needed for each test.
They’ve learnt to grind results out, as well. They’ve won a number of games when they’ve been behind, or not at their best – and that’s a magnificent attribute he’s given them.
You can tell watching that side that they’ve bought into Chris’ philosophy and that he’s honed their approach on the training ground throughout the season.
LN: We’ve touched on Billy Sharp – top scorer in League One this season. He’s thrived in the third tier but has a mixed record at Championship level. How do you reckon he’ll handle that division next season?
AW: First off, I think he’ll get the chance to prove himself at that level. After what he’s done this season, I can’t see him losing his place to a new signing up front.
Yes, his record has been hit and miss in the Championship. But that shows he can thrive with the right level of support. And I could actually see them bringing in a good second striker this summer, who can work as a provider and a foil for him.
I know a lot of sides play with just the one recognised striker when they come up, but Sheffield United have the kind of quality which means they don’t need to be that cautious next season.
With the right players around him, Sharp is capable of getting well into double figures next season, as far as I’m concerned.
LN: It waits to be seen whether Sheffield Wednesday will also be winning promotion through the play-offs: but if they’re both in the Championship together – how much would you look forward to seeing the Steel City Derby return after five-year absence?
AW: From a purely selfish point of view, I hope Wednesday don’t go up this season, because I’d love to see that fixture return.
I’m sure once the dust has settled on promotion, the thing United fans will be looking towards most is this fixture. There’s been such a wait for it that it’ll be an extra special occasion – and a chance for Blades fans to finally get local bragging rights again!
We sadly didn’t face Wednesday during my two years at the club – but I’ve played in derby games before. My first was the Lanarkshire derby – Motherwell v Hamilton Academical – and even then, you really felt the added spice.
Then I had the pleasure of playing for Celtic against Rangers in front of crowds of 60,000 – which is just the stuff that dreams are made of, as a boy from Glasgow.
As a player, you really feed off the tension and the occasion, and there’s just something extra special about them. Especially so for the local lads at Bramall Lane, like Sharp, George Long and Louis Reed. And there’s nothing that would give the supporters more joy than beating your fiercest rivals.
LN: And finally – you were part of a United side who reached a play-off final, and scored some crucial goals during two years on the Blades’ books. What’s your best memory in a United shirt?
AW: The best memory I have is going down to face Ipswich Town at Portman Road in the Division One play-off Semi-Finals back in 1997. I shouldn’t really have played because I had a knock, but I came off the bench and scored the goal that took us to Wembley!
I scored in normal time to make it 2-2 on the night and 3-3 on aggregate. Back then, away goals counted in the play-offs, so we had a very nervy 30 minutes but held on to reach the final!
On the way home, the roads were incredibly busy and the team bus was just almost at a standstill. Anyway, Don Hutchison sneaked out of the back window of the bus, crawled along the entire roof, and then slithered in through one of the front windows, onto the table where [manager] Howard Kendall was sitting with Viv Busby. They jumped out of their skin!
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