Underdog Sheffield United eyes Champions League spot

UNITED KINGDOM (AP) – When it comes to the Premier League’s greatest underdog tale, nothing can top Leicester winning the Premier League at odds of 5,000-1 in the 2015-16 season.

There’s another unlikely story brewing, however. Another “how are they doing this?” run that shows no sign of ending.

It could yet culminate in Sheffield United playing in the Champions League.

The club from the “Steel City” were in last place in the third division only three years ago, but are now sixth in the Premier League and battling with the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United to secure what’s likely to be England’s fourth and final qualification spot for Europe’s top competition.

They’re a team whose main starting striker has yet to score a goal this season, whose centre backs — in a unique tactic — cause chaos by charging forward and often finding themselves more advanced than the midfield, and whose locally born manager was once a ball boy.

Sheffield United head coach Chris Wilder. PHOTO: AP

The Blades, as they are nicknamed, are even receiving admiring glances from some of football’s deepest thinkers.

“As a manager,” Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola said last month of Sheffield United, “you see some teams so you can improve. And this is the one.”

This is no flash in the pan, either. United, widely tipped to get relegated in their first season in the top division in 12 years, are five points behind fourth-place Chelsea with a third of the league campaign remaining.

After a 1-0 win at Crystal Palace last Saturday, United’s next three games are at home against Bournemouth, Brighton and Norwich — three teams fighting against relegation. Chelsea, meanwhile, are stumbling in their pursuit of the Champions League after winning only four of their last 13 games. The race for fourth feels wide open.

No Sheffield United team have been this high in the standings since the mid-1970s. The club have never played in European club competition in their 131-year history.

So, it was recently put to manager Chris Wilder, could the Blades soon be cutting it in Europe?

“Europe and all that,” he said rather dismissively. “I guess that might be an end-of-season trip.”

Wilder — United’s frank, down-to-earth, say-it-like-it-is coach — is the architect of the club’s stunning rise. A fan as a kid, he went on to play for United in two separate spells as a right back before, having been linked numerous times with becoming manager, took charge in the offseason of 2016 after a 15-year coaching career spent in the lower or non-leagues.

It was a tough start at his boyhood club for Wilder, who has a Sheffield United tattoo and a distinctive all-black look in wearing a shiny vest over a training top.

The team lost three of their first four games under him to lie bottom of League One in August 2016, their worst league position since the early 1980s. Wilder switched to a three-man defence and began to deploy an unorthodox tactic that saw the team’s wide centre backs racing forward inside or outside the wing backs to cause an overlap. It led to an overload of the flanks — and therefore confusion among opposition defences — while one of United’s central midfielders covered in behind.

It’s a tactic still used to great effect by Wilder, and has been instilled into the club’s youth teams.

Some of the players survive from Wilder’s first season, two of them being those overlapping centre backs — Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham — and also homegrown striker Billy Sharp.

They are a big part of Wilder’s journey that has seen United win promotion in two of the last three league seasons to make it to the Premier League for the first time since 2007.

There’s still that humble, close-knit feel to the team, too. Before a recent away game against Liverpool, Wilder took his players to a park next to Anfield on the morning of the match for a light training session. After winning promotion to the Premier League in May last year, United’s players went to Las Vegas together.

United are now under sole control of Prince Abdullah, a member of the Saudi royal family. With more funds available to strengthen the squad, the club has broken their transfer record five times in past eight months — most recently for Norway midfielder Sander Berge, who made his debut over the weekend — but they’ve hardly been big-name acquisitions.

“We’re in a great place as a football club,” Wilder said, “with the quality we’ve signed, the results we’re getting, and the performances we’re getting even when we’re not at our best.

“But the key is to not pat yourself on the back.”