Visit any football club in the country and you are sure to find a person or two who are more of a fixture than the handles on the dressing room doors.
Sadly, Sheffield United lost two favourites this last week – former goalkeeper Alan Hodgkinson and club photographer Martyn Harrison.
Hodgkinson passed away at the age of 79, having played 674 times for the Blades in a career that lasted over 20 years before becoming a goalkeeping coach.
Understandably, the South Yorkshire club are going to pay tribute to the two stalwarts tomorrow when they face Coventry City.
The duo had an impact on both fans and players, a sentiment echoed by a successor to Hodgkinson’s jersey, George Long.
Like Hodgkinson, Long came through the Blades’ youth set-up, and admitted he would like to replicate the former England international’s success.
Long said: “He had a phenomenal career to do what he has done at Bramall Lane and then play for England as well. He’s a hero to a lot of the fans.
“I think my dad used to watch him growing up when he used to come to the games, so he has told me all about him. If I could do anything near what Hodgy did, then that would be fantastic.
“He was always there to pass on advice. He is a Bramall Lane legend as well, and played 600-odd games for us, so it has been quite a sad week around the place.”
The news of Harrison’s passing also hit hard, given the esteem with which he was held by the entire side. Long continued, “Martyn Harrison, the club photographer, has been here for many years, and a lot of the lads got on with him really well. He was a great guy and made time for everyone. It’s sad to lose Martin.”
However, ahead of the Coventry game there is a suggestion that it could bring together a squad that has struggled to live up to expectations this campaign.
Touted as automatic promotion favourites before a ball was kicked, the Blades find themselves 12th in League One; tomorrow’s visitors are second.
Long is convinced that victories are only just around the corner, something he concedes the side need in the near future.
“We have got to start getting some good results,” he said.
“We are nearly there. At Barnsley, we conceded a goal in the last minute. We defended so well throughout the 90 minutes, and then to concede a strike from the edge of the box is so unlucky.
“I could not believe it, to be honest. We had defended so well throughout the game. I had managed to save a penalty, thinking it’s all going to plan, and then Conor Hourihane pops up with that.
“That is what happens in football. It’s not always perfect, you do not always get the result you desire.
“I think our luck is going to turn; we are just going to keep working hard, there is nothing else we can do.”
It did turn slightly against Oldham last week. Admittedly, the game was an FA Cup second round tie, but facing League One opposition and triumphing is something that the Blades have struggled to do in recent weeks.
Prior to beating the Latics, you had to go back to October 20 and the visit of Fleetwood Town to find a victory for Nigel Adkins’s side in the league or against third-tier opposition.
Tomorrow will be an opportunity, but a difficult one. Coventry come to Bramall Lane with League One’s top goalscorer in their ranks. Adam Armstrong, on loan from Newcastle United, has netted 13 times since the start of the season. For a goalkeeper, that could be a frightening statistic. Long is relatively unfazed, despite knowing about the player’s talent, and believes his defence can keep Armstrong quiet if they do their job.
He said: “They have got Adam Armstrong up top, who has been lethal this season and scored a lot of goals.
“Our defence has got to have mettle. We know all about him. I
“It’s a case of keeping it solid at the back and then giving it to the front lads so they can cause them a few problems.”
Despite Armstrong’s capabilities, Long thinks it is important that the team focus on what they are good at ahead of tomorrow’s game, rather than worrying about Coventry’s strengths.
While he admits that it is going to be a “tough test”, Long thinks his side have to think about how they can do damage to Tony Mowbray’s team.
He said: “They are a big club and they have been around the Championship quite a lot in their history.
“They will be looking to bounce up, like we are. They are in good form, they are up near the top of the table, so it is going to be a tough test for us.
“We always concentrate on ourselves. We know what we are capable of – we are a good team, even one of the strongest teams in the league.
“If we concentrate on what we do, we can cause anyone trouble, no matter where they are in the division.”
The run of seven games since the 3-0 win against Worcester in the FA Cup is Long’s longest in the side this season and, worryingly for Coventry, his confidence is brewing.
His aforementioned penalty save against Barnsley two weeks ago was only one moment in an impressive season and an extended run in the first team has clearly given him the confidence to start imposing himself on games.
Long added: “It was great last week in the FA Cup to come and claim a few crosses and take the pressure off the defence. As a goalkeeper, I think the more games that you play, the more you get into the groove of things.”