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Next month will mark the fourth anniversary of Chris Wilder’s appointment as Sheffield United manager. A create your own football jersey journey which began with defeats by Bolton and Southend either side of a draw with Rochdale in League One has taken the Blades to unthinkable new heights.
On a budget dwarfed by those of their rivals, and with a squad dominated by players who have been with Wilder from the start, Sheffield United lie seventh in the Premier League. They have taken more points than Tottenham and Arsenal and conceded fewer goals than Manchester City. Win their game in hand when football returns and they could go fifth.
It is a story of smart management and fearless ambition, of perseverance and no shortage of skill. But of all the factors which have contributed to their success, shrewd player recruitment is perhaps the most significant.
Over the course of four seasons, Wilder and his staff have built a squad capable of fighting its way to the top and then staying there. They have tapped into unfulfilled potential, unearthed gems in unlikely places, and eked the absolute maximum Maglietta Arsenal out of the resources at their disposal.
It can be seen in John Fleck, Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell, three of their strongest performers in the Premier League this season, all of whom arrived at the club at the start of Wilder’s first year in charge. From John Lundstram and Enda Stevens to Oliver Norwood and John Egan, there have been many more success stories Maillot Monaco along the way.
Among last year’s signings were Oliver McBurnie, who had made a name for himself in the second tier with Barnsley and Swansea, and Callum Robinson, who had spent three seasons with Preston North End having risen through the youth ranks at Aston Villa. This summer, there are likely to be more new arrivals from the Championship and below.
Sheffield United are now able to cast their net personalized football jersey wider in the transfer market at the same time as looking in the lower leagues. But their resources are still comparatively limited. While Premier League rivals boast far-reaching scouting networks, the Blades have their own way of doing things.
Sheffield United are one of a number of top-level clubs who work with football data intelligence providers SciSports to identify potential signings. But they are also helped by their own reputation for player development and a strong understanding of the human aspects of recruitment.
Berge, a coveted Norway international who has played at Champions League level, had rejected a move to Bramall Lane in the summer but was convinced to join Wilder’s side having watched them prove their Premier League credentials in the first half of the season. Sheffield United’s interest, however, dated back even further than that.
The lockdown has stalled Sheffield United’s progress for now. But there is no let-up for Wilder and his staff. They are busy assessing their work so far and formulating plans for the summer and beyond.
Wilder’s sights are now set higher than ever before. Sheffield United’s remarkable season could yet end in Champions League qualification and Billige Manchester City drakt the Berge deal underlines just how far the club has come. But there will be no departure from the principles that got them here.
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