Middlesbrough v Sheffield United: Liverpool was ‘amazing’ but Ben Davies happy to be a Blade

After months of very little football, the early weeks of Ben Davies’s Sheffield United career have been physically hard but he has loved every minute.

Just having someone so happy to be playing again – and centre-back Davies is not alone in that – has been important at a club which was down in the dumps in August but which travels to Middlesbrough in a very different state of mind.

The stakes may be high, the pressures great, but football is still a game to be enjoyed. It is why Slavisa Jokanovic is promising to give opposite number Neil Warnock a sly kick or two during the 90 minutes, then enjoy a drink with him at full-time.

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Davies moved from Preston North End to Liverpool in January, and never played for them. It made joining Sheffield United a bit of a release, but was not without its difficulties.

Sheffield United defender Ben Davies. Picture: Darren Staples/Sportimage

He has started four of eight games since and if he runs out at the Riverside, playing consecutive matches will be an important milestone.

“It took me a few games to get strong because the resilience of my body needed a few weeks,” explains Davies. “I came in after the international break and we did a fitness test which was one minute on, 30 seconds off basically until you couldn’t run any more and I felt really strong in my lungs but then I go and play a game and I’ll play consistently well for 60 minutes, then 30 I’ll feel fatigued. The next time it’ll be 80 minutes.

“It would take me two or three days to recover because my legs are just tight and fatigued.

“The more games you play, the less time it takes to recover and the stronger you feel throughout the games. The last couple of days have been the best I’ve felt.

Ben Davies of Sheffield Utd. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“It’s been managed really well by the staff here, they’ve taken it out of my hands, really. There was a game against Preston I obviously really wanted to play in but they knew the bigger picture and in hindsight I probably wasn’t quite ready.”

Conor Hourihane started the season on the fringes at Aston Villa and Iliman Ndiaye being substituted with cramp after his first two starts was a reminder the step up from Under-23 to senior football is big too. The most important thing for Davies has been the buzz of playing again.

“The move to Liverpool was amazing but the one thing I really, really missed was that matchday feeling,” he says. “Now fans are back in as well it’s like it used to be, really.”

Davies, the centre-back Chris Wilder wanted when Jack O’Connell went under the knife last October, brings many important footballing qualities but the smile on his face should not be under-estimated.

“It’s important,” acknowledges Jokanovic. “First of all we were looking for players who could play but after that we were looking for some characteristics we needed.

Ben Davies had a lot of months without playing, so he had a few problems after the games. It didn’t really affect him during the games because he’s comfortable with the ball, he reads the game very well and positionally he’s a good player.”

Something Jokanovic is looking forward to is seeing Warnock. Their fondness for each other, like Warnock’s for the Blades, will be on hold for 90 minutes.

“Neil is one of my favourite coaches in England,” says Jokanovic.

“I like to chat and drink some beer with him after the game. I like his personality. I enjoy being in his company. He’s a nice man. He has a reputation in England but for me it’s always a great experience after the game.

“We are not best friends but I really enjoy his company. Win, lose or draw he shows respect. I expect I will kick him hard and win the game then I will enjoy the glass of wine more.”

Sharing time with opposition managers is an English custom the Serbian enjoys.

“When I first came here they looked at me like, ‘Who is this guy? What is he doing here?’ but with time we started to know each other professionally and personally,” he says. “We talk about a lot of things, not only football.

“During the game we might be fighting or shouting at each other but after the game we will enjoy a glass of wine or a bottle of beer. It’s part of the English tradition and I enjoy it.”

Matt Crooks’s weekend red card has been rescinded, allowing him to play for Middlesbrough. Crooks was sent off after challenging Reading goalkeeper Luke Southwood but made an honest attempt without raising his studs and referee Peter Bankes recognised his mistake.

Marc Bola is a doubt after returning from injury at the Madejski Stadium, and Anfernee Dijksteel, Onel Hernandez, Sammy Ameobi, Marcus Browne and Darnell Fisher are all missing.

Last six games: Middlesbrough LLWLDD; Sheffield United WDWDWD

Referee: J Linington (Isle of Wight)

Last time: Middlesbrough 3 Sheffield United 0, August 7, 2018, Championship.