Sunderland travel to Bramall Lane on tonight where they will face Premier League side Sheffield United in the Carabao Cup. The Black Cats beat both Accrington and Burnley 3-1 away from home, whilst Chris Wilder’s men dispatched Blackburn 2-1 at home to reach the third round.
The game falls in a difficult period for Jack Ross who has faced excruciating pressure following our disappointing 1-1 draw at bottom side Bolton. On the other hand, things could not be better for the Blades after they beat Everton 2-0 at the weekend to continue their impressive start to their Premier League campaign. Sunderland were defeated 3-0 in their last visit to Bramall Lane on Boxing Day 2017, courtesy of goals from John Lundstram, Richard Stearman and George Baldock.
Ahead of the cup tie, I spoke to Sheffield United fan Callum Cheswick of BT Sport and Vavel, to discuss how they are enjoying life in the Premier League, as well as what we can expect from them during the game.
MC: Sheffield United currently sit 10th in the Premier League after beating both Crystal Palace and Everton, in addition to drawing with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge - are you surprised by how well your team have begun the season?
CC: I am both surprised and not surprised. I’m not surprised in the sense of how many points we have got so far in this Premier League campaign as I predicted us to have seven or eight points at this stage so we are in line with how I thought we’d start this season after a fairly tricky opening six games back in the top flight.
However, I am massively surprised in how we’ve got these points in terms of the games we’ve amassed them in. I don’t think very many people will have predicted the Blades go and get a point down at Stamford Bridge and the manner that we did it in as well. Going two goals down at half time we certainly had our backs against the wall but with this never say die attitude our players and management staff have we managed to get a result after a very accomplished second half display. The other really surprising result was our win at the weekend. Everton had won their last six league games at Goodison Park since a draw in the Merseyside derby in March and hadn’t lost at home since last seasons Premier League champions, Manchester City, beat them in February.
The game against the Toffees epitomised the character of the Blades team. We had to sit in our own half for the majority of the game and had only two shots the entire game, the mental strength of the players to keep playing and fighting for each other, made sure of a clean sheet in arguably one of the best defensive performances I’ve seen the Blades put in and while our attacking display was largely non existent we’ll certainly take the same every week. The two nil win was probably undeserved but icing on a well earned cake.
MC: It is not a secret that Sunderland’s owner Stewart Donald was interested in bringing Chris Wilder to the Stadium of Light before we appointed Jack Ross. Did you ever worry he would leave his boyhood club when he had disagreements with the board regarding finances?
CC: I think all Blades fans get worried when there’s links of clubs being interested in Chris Wilder as he is in my opinion, the greatest manager of the club in all time. Although I didn’t see the likes of Bassett’s era at the club and only briefly saw Neil Warnock’s side, I don’t think either of those revolutionised the way we play and create arguably the most unique system in professional football with our overlapping centre halves.
So was I worried? At the end of the 2017/18 season, absolutely. Now? Definitely not. In all honesty I wasn’t worried about him leaving to Sunderland either.
While the Black Cats are a massive club and shouldn’t be playing in League One, they are and the Blades were in the Championship at the time, after the past couple of seasons Wilder had at the Lane, the only way was up in his managerial career. The only reason I was slightly worried about Chris leaving is because of boardroom unrest and he felt he wouldn’t the get the backing to do his job or be allowed to do it without arguments above him.
However, after the guarantees from both owners last summer that they would give him a decent budget and allow him to work without any interruptions it was pretty much guaranteed in my eyes that he would stay.
The guy loves the club, he loves the fans, he loves Sheffield and the fans love him and realise what an unbelievable job he is doing here, we know it won’t last forever but we are backing him all the way until it does, hopefully that won’t be for a long time.
MC: Wilder has been credited for his unique system which features overlapping centre backs, as well as for his loyalty to players who have been central to the club’s success. What were the main factors which saw yourselves go from League One to the Premier League in just three seasons?
CC: I think the main factors for us were; togetherness, belief and players knowing their roles in the system. The togetherness of the team was the most important though in my opinion. There were times last season where we would have lost a game we shouldn’t have or conceded a late equaliser which could’ve derailed our promotion push but when you have a team who play for each other and work for each other day in day out, week in week out then you are half way there to a great team.
On a few occasions last season we could’ve just rolled over and admitted defeat or have took our foot off the gas when automatic promotion didn’t seem likely but our players dug in, stuck together and did everything they could to get a result, that for me is why we went up. The belief comes from buying into the managers ethos and having faith in the system. There’s no point playing for a manager when you don’t believe in his style and system but what Wilder has done is he has bought in players with a good attitude and footballing knowledge who will be able to adapt to the system and play in the team with confidence that the way the teams playing will work.
As I touched on briefly there, another thing which I think was a main factor for us getting promoted was the players knowing their roles in the system, everyone knows how they have to play in the system to make it work to full effect. While everyone has fluidity in the team to make it work the players also know how to keep shape and defensive solidity for if we lose the ball, organised chaos is the best way to describe it and at it’s best it really is one of the finer sights in football.
MC: Another player which Sunderland attempted to buy last summer was your captain Billy Sharp, who like Wilder has been integral to your rise scoring sixty-six goals in the last three seasons. Do you think he has the ability to repeat that kind of form in the Premier League or is he restricted to being an impact sub?
CC: Billy has played a huge part in getting the Blades back into the Premier League, he’s especially suited to how we attack teams down the sides and get pull backs and crosses into the opposition’s box. If we didn’t have Billy we definitely wouldn’t be where we are now in my opinion and it makes it even sweeter that he’s a Blades fan as well.
The supporters have so many people at the club to identify with which has made this journey even more incredible. Going off on a tangent there so back onto Bill, I think it’s ridiculously hard to ask the club captain to mirror the form he’s had in the past three seasons and I think Billy would agree that he’s not going to be as effective in a goal scoring sense as he has been, this has also been hindered by bringing in three forwards during the summer.
I do think Sharp has a part to play for United this season but I think it will be as an impact sub and he has definitely made an impact when he’s come on. A late equaliser against Bournemouth to get us a draw on the opening day and he came on against Southampton two weeks ago and changed the mood of the game and was real threat until he got sent off.
The game on Wednesday was made for Bill, a chance to get 90 minutes and make a proper claim as to why he should be starting in this Blades team but that suspension keeps him out unfortunately.
MC: In the previous round, Chris Wilder made ten changes for your 2-1 victory over Blackburn. With the cup competitions being your only realistic hope of achieving European football, do you expect to see wholesale changes again or will Sunderland face your best eleven?
CC: I expect changes and I expect a lot of them. For us this season, our only aim is survival, if we get that then anything else is a bonus.
We play the best team in the country on Saturday in Liverpool and we will be wanting to put out our best eleven for that so I expect the side that played against Everton will be mostly be rested and there will probably be ten or eleven changes.
Here’s how I expect the Blades to line up on Wednesday evening: Moore; Freeman, Jagielka, Stearman, Bryan, Osborn; Besic, Morrison, Freeman; Mousset, Robinson.
MC: Republic of Ireland international John Egan has thrived during his time at Sheffield United. He was naively released by Sunderland in 2014 after a series of loan spells away from the club, how much of a bargain buy has he been at £4m?
CC: John Egan for £4m was an absolute steal. When we signed the Irishman from Brentford last summer, the Bees fans kept saying to the Blades supporters that he wasn’t getting anywhere near the XI for the 18/19 season and that it was daylight robbery how they managed to get so much for him. How very wrong they were.
The guy will head anything, intercept everything, challenge anyone, he will do anything for the three points and in my eyes he’s only getting better. I was at Goodison Park at the weekend and I’ve not seen him play better in a Blades shirt, the guy was unbeatable at the weekend and if he keeps putting in those kind of performances we’d have no problem quadrupling our money should we chose to sell him but I doubt we will and hope we don’t.
Egan has a huge task in this Blades side, when attacking it is usually just him out of the three centre halves still at back for United meaning if a side break on us it’s usually just him back although we do track back quickly.
The way he marshals the players around him while being solid himself is something which didn’t go unnoticed last season as he was one of most influential players both on and off the field. A future Blades captain in my eyes.
MC: It is likely Ravel Morrison will feature during the match having joined Sheffield United in the summer from Swedish club Ostersund, were you surprised to see your club take a punt on him after a series of failed transfers and off the field issues?
CC: Yes I think it’s highly likely that Ravel will start on Wednesday in the Carabao Cup fixture. He’s struggled to break into the XI that usually starts in the Premier League so Chris Wilder will use this game to get the back up players some game time and match fitness as he did against Blackburn Rovers in the last round.
I was slightly surprised to see us sign Ravel in the summer I will admit. As you mentioned with his off field problems and failed transfers in the past, it just didn’t seem like a punt Chris Wilder would take. Especially with the closeness of the group someone with the issues Ravel has had off the field could’ve destroyed that, it only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch.
However, Chris Wilder is no mug and wasn’t going to take any chances with Ravel so he had the former Manchester United youth product come in on trial to see how he would fit in with the squad and if he would benefit the group going forward.
After a decent look at Ravel, Wilder, who is a good judge of character decided to offer the 26 year old a one year deal with option of a further year. Wilder stated that it was a decent deal for the club, if Ravel didn’t work out after a year then we can cut our losses having taken a punt at limited cost but if Ravel does work out then we have him for another year.
All in all I think it is a event deal all round. Ravel gets a chance to rediscover his potential and play Premier League minutes but if he doesn’t then both parties haven’t lost out. But if he does live up to his potential then the Blades have an incredible player for cheap and Ravel is at the standard he was destined to be at.
MC: Sheffield United’s loan goalkeeper Dean Henderson is highly regarded by many pundits across the media, do you believe he has the potential to challenge former Sunderland stopper Jordan Pickford as England number one?
CC: One hundred percent he will challenge Jordan Pickford for that England number one spot. Out of the current crop at the Blades, Dean is my tip to be in the Euro 2020 squad.
The Blades have seen a lot of highly regarded young keepers at Bramall Lane in recent years, George Long and Aaron Ramsdale to name a couple but out of those few keepers we have seen, in my eyes, none of them have had the same belief and confidence Dean has. His relationship with the fans made him an instant fans favourite and some of his man of the match performances and vital saves at vital times also made him a name to be sung on the terraces.
I believe his confidence will take him far, goalkeepers can’t shy away, they have to be bold and that’s exactly what Dean is and if he makes a mistake he certainly won’t shirk away from it but rather improve and take it on the chin.
That’s what the top keepers do and while I don’t see him being England’s number one just yet, one day he will and he believes that too.
MC: Sunderland have already shocked one Premier League club in the Carabao Cup this season, what do you think the final score will be on Wednesday night?
CC: What a way to stick it on me at the end! A great result for Sunderland away at Turf Moor which is a tremendously tricky ground to go too, especially after going behind, no mean feat at all! However, you can call it bias or looking through rose tinted glasses but I think in this round the Premier League side will have just too much.
The Blades were very poor against Blackburn and on another day probably would’ve been knocked out. If Sunderland start their full side they can certainly trouble the Blades who when they make wholesale changes start slow.
Whatever the score line I look forward to the game and hope the Sunderland fans make it down in numbers like the last time they visited the Lane, it really is a shame to see Sunderland in the third tier, it reminds me of the Blades just a few years ago, a great away day too at the Stadium of Light!
I think the first goal decides who wins it for me. The same score line as your last Carabao Cup fixture but the other way round - Sheffield United 3 - 1 Sunderland.