The key is to glean as much as possible from the final 11 matches of their latest spell in the Premier League, starting with today’s visit of Southampton.
If manager Chris Wilder spoke this week about the Blades being a “teaching club”, then the Saints are one of the best examples of that, as he knows from his time as an apprentice on the south coast.
Despite having made 16-year-old striker Antoine Hackford a fully-fledged Blade at Crystal Palace this season, Wilder is not a “throw the kids in” merchant, wary of the damage exposing youngsters to the heat of Premier League competition can do before they are ready. But teenagers Frankie Maguire, Kyron Gordon and Zak Brunt, and 20-year-old Iliman Ndiaye have all been unused members of the nine-man bench in 2021 with instructions to be “sponges”.
With Phil Jagielka’s suspension on top of an injury list which shows no signs of easing yet – although Wilder is hopeful Chris Basham and Jayden Bogle might face Leicester City next week and confident they will be available for the FA Cup quarter-final eight days later – there will be room for more youngsters today.
“We’ve mixed it up,” explains Wilder. “Am I thinking it’s right for them boys to go onto the pitch? Possibly not because of the standard. They will have learnt the manager is absolutely bonkers, they will have learnt a few swear words, they will have learnt off the players about a few reality TV stars, they will have learnt a lot of good stuff as well – how intense first-team training is, how good a professional the skipper (Billy Sharp) and Basham are.
“I don’t think there’s any negativity from them being in and around training, the intensity ramps up. A couple of them have been involved along the way and hopefully they’ve enjoyed that and it’s given them a little bit of a taste and given a message that we still want to produce young players.”
That long-term thinking is at the heart of the frustration that spilled out of Wilder this week. He is a hands-on manager dedicated to his club’s best interests and believes they are best served by staying that way, despite rumours of a director of football.
He also knows the value of being around good role models.
“We were a lot closer to the first team than the young players here are, there was a different structure to it then,” he says of his time at The Dell. “There wasn’t as much coaching, information, strength and conditioning and video analysis, our teachers were the senior pros when we went into training with them, whether it was 11-versus-11 against the first team or we were integrated into first-team training, or a five-a-side competition every player in the club got involved in.
“My learning was from the likes of Joe Jordan, Mick Mills and Peter Shilton – internationals who had an incredible pride about their business and their work. Even though the majority of us didn’t play consistently at the top level, that football club and a lot of football clubs in that era produced professional footballers. The ratio of how many they took in to how many had professional careers was extremely high.
“There was obviously good coaching and facilities but the biggest (factors) are the first-teamers. David Brooks learnt bits off the coaching staff but looked at the intensity of training and felt it and I thought that dragged his game from one level to another and allowed him to kick on.”
If another Brooks, Kyle Walker, Harry Maguire or Che Adams can learn important lessons from this miserable season for the Blades, it might not have been quite so bad after all.
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