Sheffield United v Birmingham City: Belief not an issue for Blades and John Egan

“Belief.”

Ask John Egan why he thinks Sheffield United can have a good season, and his answer is straight to the point.

There are plenty of reasons not to believe. The sort of dismal relegation the Blades suffered in last season’s Premier League is not shaken off easily.

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If the buzzwords the Blades bridled at this time last year were “second season syndrome”, this time it will be “hangover”.

John Egan of Sheffield United. Picture: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

In Slavisa Jokanovic they have a new manager, but he has only had two pre-season friendlies to try and put his ideas into practice ahead of this evening’s televised game at home to Birmingham City. Covid-19 not only wiped out a planned warm-up game against Norwich City, it sent the whole squad into isolation for 10 days after two players tested positive in their Spain training camp.

And although he is still keen – he has openly admitted his interest in Ronaldo Vieira and Ben Davies, but there are others on his watchlist too – Jokanovic has been unable to add a single new face to a squad built around the 3-5-2 formation the new man will not regularly, perhaps ever, use.

So those are legitimate reasons to be fearful.

On the other hand, the Blades have not sold any players either, and vice-captain Egan says the likes of Aaron Ramsdale and Sander Berge have maintained their professionalism when linked to glamorous moves elsewhere, most notably Arsenal.

Blades boss Slavisa Jokanovic. Picture: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

It leaves the Blades with a squad who know what the Championship is about. Most of the stalwarts who took the club into the Premier League two years ago remain and then-manager Chris Wilder was conscious when signing players subsequently to largely go for those who could be relied upon in the second tier if the worst came to the worst. Berge, who played in the Champions League the season he joined, was perhaps the only exception.

And whilst the tag of “promotion specialist” does not sit easily with Jokanovic, he has got Watford and Fulham out of the division before.

It explains why Egan has the bullishness that is standard across the board on the eve of a new season.

“We’ve got big belief,” he says. “We’ve always had it.

Sheffield United and England goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale.

“Last season didn’t go the best but it’s a new season now, we’ve got that belief back and we’ve got a few very experienced lads who have been there and done it before. A few teams might come down and not know how tough the Championship is but we’re well aware.

“I’ve got a lot of belief in my team-mates, the manager and the staff and I suppose that’s the biggest thing we have.”

Any concerns pre-season will leave the Blades undercooked are not shared by Egan.

“We’ve done the work we needed to do,” the centre-back stresses. “We’ve missed a few days but we’ve managed to work around that and get out of it as much as we can.”

Such is the financial gulf between the Premier League and Championship nowadays there tends to be an automatic assumption that what comes down must come up and vice-versa. The bookies have Fulham, West Bromwich Albion and the Blades as favourites to return to the division they left in the summer. For once, Sheffield United will not be looking to defy the odds.

But there is a fine line between belief and complacency.

“(Favouritism) probably comes with the territory,” shrugs Egan. “To go from underdogs to favourites in the space of a few years that’s just how far the football club has come but we’re not being complacent.

“Just because the bookies have you at these odds to win a game or win the league doesn’t mean anything. Everybody starts on zero points and you have to go out and earn it.

“Everything in football you have to earn. You have to be hungry and have the desire to start with a good result.

“I wouldn’t say it’s been drummed across, I just think everyone kind of knows it. It’s not a forgiving league, there’s a lot of Saturday-Tuesday games, it doesn’t stop. There’s a lot of different teams, a lot of different styles, and everybody fighting for the same thing so we’re all out there to fight for what we want and get what we want.”

Keeping your best players is all well and good – although as Barcelona’s bank manager might tell you, not always realistic – but only if they actually want to be there. Having players agitating for a move can be extremely damaging.

Goalkeeper Ramsdale, who left Bournemouth to return to Bramall Lane when the Cherries were relegated last summer, could easily fall into that category. His late call-up to England’s Euro 2020 squad after Dean Henderson’s injury gave the Under-21 international, still uncapped at senior level, a glimpse of what is possible but in truth it will be much harder to achieve from the second tier.

It also highlighted just how good he was in the second half of last season after a few well-publicised ropey moments in the first.

But it is Ramsdale’s professionalism which has most impressed Egan.

“He finished the season really strongly and put in some fantastic performances,” he says. “When you’re doing well you’re going to be linked with moves away but he’s got his head down and applied himself correctly, his attitude has been brilliant. That’s testament to him.

“He’s a great role model for the younger lads. He wants to get better, he wants to improve and it’s brilliant to have him here.”

Last season Sheffield United were just not good enough for the division they were in but their experience and their mentality are much better suited to their new surroundings. Now we will find out how far that takes them.