Emulating Sheffield United’s self-belief can put Leeds United on firm footing in Premier League

Billy Sharp says having no fear has been the key ingredient as his former club Leeds United look to follow his current one, Sheffield United, in making a big impact in their first season back in the Premier League.

In September the Whites will return to the top flight after 16 years away, and they are wisely talking about learning from their South Yorkshire neighbours.

The Blades were widely tipped for relegation in their first campaign back in the top division for 12 years, yet finished in ninth, having been in contention to qualify for Europe for most of the season.

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Captain Sharp, who rejoined his boyhood club after spending 2014-15 at Elland Road, pointed to their positive mindset as a key factor, and said their doubters drove them on.

GOOD TIMING: Billy Sharp turns away to celebrate his late equaliser for Sheffield United at Bournemouth on the opening day of the season. Picture: James Wilson/Sportimage

“We haven’t feared it,” he reflected. “Everybody talked about it in the newspapers, radio, TV – Sheffield United are going to get relegated. We stuck a few bits of paper on the wall and had a laugh about it, and we tried to get out of that fear.

“We started the season strongly and grew in confidence and belief. We were well away from the relegation places all season, in the top half and fighting to try to get into the top six. It (European qualification) went to the last couple of games which is something to be incredibly proud of doing.

“Right up until Christmas we heard people saying they’re going to collapse and drop down the league but we’ve got stronger. People talked about our weaknesses but to be honest every team has got their weaknesses, you can’t be perfect. We just needed to make sure we got better at our weaknesses.”

Even after the season restarted following the coronavirus pandemic, doubts resurfaced about the Blades’ durability. The enforced break allowed Tottenham Hotspur, two points behind from a game more at that stage, to get key players such as Harry Kane back from injury, and the new conditions which permitted two extra substitutes and greatly condensed the fixture list played into the hands of clubs with bigger squads, like Spurs and Arsenal.

Leeds United's players will head into the Premier League full of confidence as champions. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

The Blades picked up just one point from their first three matches, but responded by beating Spurs, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Chelsea in consecutive home games.

Manager Chris Wilder stuck to more or less the same tactical blueprint which brought the Blades up from League One, tweaking the formation from 3-4-1-2 to 3-5-2 but playing with all the same principles of workrate, overloads, high energy and overlapping centre-backs.

His signings were integrated into the squad to add quality rather than revolutionise it. Of the 11 players who made the most league starts for Sheffield United, only Oli McBurnie – 10th with 24 starts – did not play for them in the Championship the previous season.

That stable approach comes naturally anyway to Leeds coach Marcelo Bielsa. His club is in the market for at least one high-quality forward and as the Blades did with Lys Mousset, then McBurnie, the Whites will be prepared to break their transfer record (the £18m paid for Rio Ferdinand in 2000). Free agent Edinson Cavani was mentioned in the aftermath of promotion but £25m-rated Said Benrahma looks a more realistic target now Brentford have missed out on going up too. Team-mate Ollie Watkins reportedly has an £18m buyout clause but after 25 Championship goals is sure to be in high demand at that price.

SELF-BELIEF: Sheffield United's ability to play without fear saw them enjoy a memorable return to the Premier League. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

With Ben White’s season-long loan and cruciate knee ligament victim Gaetano Berardi’s contract up, more strength will be needed at centre-back, and additions could be welcome in goal, at left-back and central midfield.

What also helped the Blades’ belief was getting off to a good start, coming from behind to draw 1-1 at Bournemouth on the opening day with Sharp scoring an 88th-minute equaliser.

“That’s why I’m delighted with the goal,” said the centre-forward. “To get the first Premier League goal was a brilliant feeling but it felt like a win. It gave us our first Premier League point and something to build on. Then you try to win your home game, which is what we did (beating Crystal Palace 1-0).

“It was a great start and the fear soon went, the belief kept growing, the character of the boys got stronger and they’ve been absolutely fantastic since.

THAT WAS THEN ... Billy Sharp, pictured in his time with Leeds United playing at Bradford city in August 2014. Picture: Tony Johnson

“People say we’ve worked hard but that’s not the reason we’ve done well, we’re actually a good team. We realised we’re all good players and we did deserve to be in the Premier League, but we can’t just sit back now and relax because that’s when it becomes tough and when you do get sucked in to the lower end of the table.

“We need to make sure we’re on our game every single minute of every day. We try and do it in training, day in and day out, because that makes it easier on a Saturday.”

That determination not to stand still will see Wilder try to strengthen his squad again this summer, albeit on a much-reduced budget because of coronavirus. Goalkeeper Wes Foderingham has joined on a Bosman free transfer but a first-choice may be needed if Manchester United do not agree to a third successive season-long loan for Dean Henderson. There has also been reported interest in Nottingham Forest right-back Matty Cash.