Enda Stevens believes the Championship is a different league to the one he last graced four years ago.
Sheffield United’s summer signing was part of the Doncaster Rovers side in 2013 which played in English football’s second tier.
But the influx of money into the Championship – where transfer fees have regularly reached eight-figure sums – means the league is far different to when the Blades were last there in 2011.
United have endured a tough baptism back in the Championship, with back-to-back away defeats – at Middlesbrough and Cardiff City – following their opening day win over Brentford.
Chris Wilder’s side host South Yorkshire rivals Barnsley in a lunchtime kick-off today, and Stevens – who joined from Portsmouth this summer – believes the Championship is like a “mini Premier League”.
“The Championship is a lot more intense and a lot more physical,” said Stevens. “It’s like a mini-Premier League.
“There are no easy games whatsoever. We’ve got to get to grips with it and we will do. We’re four games in now and we’ve got another good test coming up.
“The margins haven’t surprised me. I watched the division last season and so I know how good it is. We know we’re good enough. Now we just want to prove it.
“It’s been a tough start, we’ve played a lot of the more competitive teams in the first three.
“Middlesbrough are probably the favourites, Cardiff are flying and Brentford are being backed as well. It’s just about getting to grips with the Championship and knowing what’s required.
“This group is well capable and, to be honest, we’ve also been unlucky. We’ve got to keep clean sheets and score goals. Both ends of the pitch, to be fair, is where we need to improve.
“It’s good up here (in South Yorkshire). I’ve got a few friends still from Doncaster. It’s easy to settle in. You are around the lads most days and training. It’s not tough at all.”
Stevens, then at Aston Villa, had two loan spells at Doncaster between 2013 and 2015.
The 27-year-old played for Rovers in several all-Yorkshire games, so is no stranger to derby encounters.
“I played in the Bramall Lane game (April 2015), 3-2 I think it was, and against Leeds and Barnsley,” Stevens told The Yorkshire Post. “I’ve had a good taste for the Yorkshire derbies.
“I remember most of my games, I’m not too bad like that. You remember playing at Bramall Lane, don’t you? You’re not going to forget that.
“Barnsley have got a good squad there. They started off really well last season so we know it’s going to be tough.
“It’s going to be a big crowd and the atmosphere will be electric. We’ve got to thrive off that.
“We want people to fear coming to Bramall Lane and, over the last year or so, that has been the case. The home form has been terrific and we want to keep that going this season.
“We’ll do our homework on them. We’ll know what we’re coming up against. We’ll be well prepared.”
Stevens has started all three Championship games and is keen to repay the faith of Wilder, the pair having worked together previously at Northampton Town.
“It was pleasing (to start) and a good show of faith from the manager,” said the Irishman. “I’ve got to keep my head down and work hard.
“It’s a squad game, though. It will come down to each individual over the course of the season. Everyone, because of the intensity, is going to play their part.”
A former Under-21 player for the Republic of Ireland, Stevens – who played in the Europa League with Irish sides St Patrick’s Athletic and Shamrock Rovers – is non-committal about his international ambitions.
“Playing wouldn’t harm the international cause but, to be honest, that’s not what my focus is,” he said. “My focus is just on Sheffield United and doing well for us. If I do that, then it might be recognised elsewhere.”
A return of three points from United’s opening three games back in the Championship is acceptable, considering their opponents.
Wilder has seen plenty of positives, in defeats at Boro and Cardiff, to know the Blades will be competitive this term.
“I think we have played pretty well in our first three games, it’s all about learning for us in terms of game set-up,” said Wilder.
“You can’t really see much pre-season. The shape of the team looks all right, we have had enough of the ball, enough opportunities at the top of the pitch.
“It’s just the sharpness in our play and bit of discipline when opponents are in possession that is needed.
“I think we have been in all three games. We understand games in the Championship are going to be tight games that are decided in both boxes.
“We haven’t been on the rack. There have been periods where teams have been on top – I understand that, and accept that – but I think the opposition will say the same.
“I keep asking the question of the coaching staff, are teams sitting deeper on us, or are we pushing them back?
“I think we are pushing them back.
“Cardiff, at home, wanted to win the game 3-0, 4-0 – like they did against Villa – Middlesbrough, too.
“It’s like we were last year, we wouldn’t be happy being 1-0 or 2-0, because it’s a dangerous scoreline.
“They wanted to blow us out of the game, but I don’t think we have allowed them to do that.
“It’s just the fine details, that last little ball – being more ruthless in both boxes.
“But I certainly haven’t got my head in my hands, thinking ‘are wholesale changes needed, change of formation needed, a change in approach?
“I don’t think there is. I believe the thought process we had at the start of the season hasn’t changed.
“We just need to tighten up, get a couple more players up to speed of the division, and some additions to make us better overall.”