NOTE FROM IAIN: The Predictor League for Sheffield United today is open HERE. Entries can be submitted until 12 noon.
After the enforced international break, West Ham return to action this weekend with a Sunday lunchtime visit to South Yorkshire where we meet Sheffield United. Before the game I spoke to lifelong Blades fan Jack Simpson, who growing up between Millwall and Crystal Palace understandably decided to follow his dad and support Sheffield United, to discuss the game and the season.
Hi Jack. Last season was a great return to the Premier League after a long absence for Sheffield United. You must have been delighted with your final position of 9th in the league? Apart from your high position what were your highlights of the 19/20 season?
Would it be cheeky at this stage to say seeing David Moyes’ face when Michael Oliver got word that Declan Rice had handled the ball in the lead up to Robert Snodgrass’ last minute equaliser, sorry, non-equaliser, at Bramall Lane? But no, in all seriousness, there were so many. From Billy Sharp’s equaliser against Bournemouth on the opening day, to coming back from 2-0 down to draw in the last minute at Stamford Bridge, to beating both Tottenham and Chelsea three-zip in the space of nine days after the COVID break, it was definitely a memorable one. But the overriding feeling is just of pride at how we went toe-to-toe with everyone and were not overawed in the vast majority of games. Up until the COVID break, Europe was actually a possibility. The team was basically the same the same 11 that got us promoted. Many, as the famous Blades song goes, saw them as “journeymen” from the Championship and League One, and favourites for the drop, but we were incredible.
This season is not at the moment looking so good. Is it a case of ‘2nd season blues’, or was it that you massively over-performed last year? What is the main reason for the disparity between then and now?
We definitely over-performed last season. We were riding the crest of the wave of confidence from the promotion season and that basically lasted all the way up to the enforced COVID break. There were definitely signs after the resumption that our powers were on the wane, and our last three games of the season showed that. After beating Chelsea 3-0 at Brammall Lane, we proceeded to lose our next three without scoring a goal. I think we have lost 10 out of our last 11 Premier League games across both seasons. Crucial to our success last year was the fact the team stayed largely unchanged; we were very lucky with injuries. Everyone knew their roles, which is crucial when you play a system like ours. And those that did play, most of whom had never played in the Premier League before, were playing the football of their lives, hitting eight out of ten pretty much every game. This has definitely not been the case this year. Hearing the news that Jack O’Connell, our left overlapping centre back and arguably best player, would be out for the season was a hammer blow. He has left a glaring hole in that left side of defence, with at least four of the goals we have conceded coming from opposition headers, he would usually be covering. Injuries to midfielder Jon Fleck (the bloke you lot wanted to sign a couple of seasons ago) and striker Lys Mousset (the bloke who shinned one in against you lot at the Olympic Stadium last year) have not helped either. Equally, some of our best players from last season such as Oli Norwood, George Baldock and Enda Stevens, are suffering from a severe drop in form and have hit nowhere near the heights of last season. We also don’t score many goals. We’ve only scored four all season, and only two of them have been from open play. To be honest, we weren’t free scorers last year, we got only 39 goals across the season’s 38 games. Only difference is, last year we had the fourth best defence in the division, conceding only 39 goals. This year we have the joint fifth worse defence, having shipped 14 goals.
Of course Chris Wilder is the same man as last year (although I saw in the press that he has taken up drinking again recently), does he still have the confidence and backing of the fans?
In Chris Wilder, we trust. The club was at its lowest ebb when he answered the call to come and manage us. We had just finished 12th in League One, our fifth season in the third tier, and fan morale was at an all time low. To be honest, it was bloody lucky our chairman, Kevin McCabe (remember him Hammers fans?), did call him when he did. Folklore has it, and this has been confirmed by Wilder, that he was on the train down to London to be unveiled as Charlton’s new manager when his phone rang. He didn’t start that well either. He lost three his first four games, leaving the Blades bottom of League One. The last one coming in a miserable day down at the New Den. However, since then he has not looked back. Promotion with 100 points in the first season and then promotion to the Prem in his third. What makes it even better is he is a Blade through and through. Was a ball boy and player, twice, at the club. He was even seen at the odd home and away game, when the team he was managing wasn’t playing. There have been slight murmurings in the fanbase for the first time that he might not be the man for the job, but this is very much from the not so silent minority. He is Sheffield United’s greatest ever manager – most fans will agree – and if anyone is going to get us out of this sticky situation, it is Tufty.
How do you rate West Ham’s David Moyes as manager?
David Moyes has surprised me. Maybe it was a bit lazy, but I, like many football journalists and pundits, had him down as one of the favourites in the sack race at the start of the season. However, West Ham have started the season really well. Alongside us, you’ve probably had the hardest set of opening fixtures to the season of anyone. A haul of 11 points after those run of games is pretty impressive. I’ve only seen West Ham once this season. It was against Arsenal and I was impressed. You were arguably the better team and thought you were really unlucky not to get something out of it. I think the jury is still out a bit on David Moyes, he hasn’t pulled up trees since his halcyon days at Everton, and wonder whether he could take you to a position any higher than mid-table mediocrity. But imagine most Hammers fans can’t have too many complaints this season so far.
Managerial skills aside, I do rate his opening Real Sociedad interview as one of the funniest football interviews I have seen.
You’ve spent big on Rhian Brewster, amongst others – how are your new signings fitting in?
I think the stat (don’t quote me on this) that he only touched the ball just over a dozen times across his first two games, says it all really. He has not set the world alight yet, as many Blades fans hoped/prayed he might have have done. In his defence though, his first three games have seen us play Liverpool, Man City and Chelsea, and we haven’t shown much in the way of attacking enterprise across those fixtures. He does look like he is working his way into Premier League football, having never played a Premier League game since coming to the Blades for £20m in September: he’s looked slightly overwhelmed with it all so far. Blades fans are keeping their fingers crossed he will grow into the role and start firing on all cylinders, as we are desperate for a striker that can score. The summer also saw us spend money on goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, with the England Under-21 signing for £18m after appearances etc. Ramsdale, who we sold three years ago to Bournemouth for just £800,000, has been the focus of criticism from a section of the support after some questionable decisions between the sticks in recent weeks. But this must be seen with the caveat that he has had a bloody lot to do. Most of the criticism is from Blades fans that constantly compare him to England international and now Manchester United second-choice Dean Henderson, who was on loan at Brammall Lane for two seasons and was a fans’ favourite. Ramsdale will get better and will hopefully have a bit less to do in the coming weeks. Other notable signings saw us bring in Ethan Ampadu on loan from Chelsea, who has shown glimpses but been in and out of the team, and Derby full-backs Jayden Bogle and Max Lowe join for a combined fee of £11m. Bogle has yet to feature, and poor Max Lowe had a torrid time against Chelsea’s Ziyech and Reece James last time out. Arguably our best signing of the season so far has been Oli Burke from West Brom. He has shown a lot of promise with his raw speed and endeavour in the early weeks of the season. However, he has been mysteriously left out of the team in recent weeks.
Where do you need to urgently improve your team over the next transfer window?
Goalkeeper, defence, midfield, up front. Ok, maybe that’s a bit drastic but…We definitely need to bring in some form of replacement for Jack O’Connell in the left centre back position. We currently have our left wing back Enda Stevens playing there. Stevens is many things, but a Premier League standard centre back, he is not.Think the one of the big mistakes of Chris Wilder’s summer business was not bringing in a creative/attacking midfielder. The first eight games have shown, particularly with Fleck out that this is where we are missing someone. Jon Lundstram’s decision not to sign a contract has further exacerbated this. We were pursuing Reading’s Jon Swift all summer but that fizzled out because we weren’t willing to pay the £6m pricetag.
All West Ham fans know from experience what is like to be firmly ensconced at the bottom of the table at this stage of the year. Do Sheffield Utd have the wherewithal to stay up this year. Where do you hope/think you will end the season?
I’m a glass half full kind of fan, so I’m going to say we sneak out of the bottom three with a few games to go. The next ten games are crucial. If we go into the January transfer window still in with a shout, I back Wilder to bring in the recruits to pull us out of trouble. The Blades have been in this position before, 30 years ago now. In 1990/91, in our first season in the old first division under Dave ‘Harry’ Bassett, we didn’t record a win for our first 16 games of the season, and had only 4 points by mid-December. Incredibly, the second half of the season was kinder to us and we ended up finishing 13th.
While we’re at it who are your three picks for the drop, come May?
Think it is a dogfight between us, Fulham, West Brom and Burnley. As I said, I think we will sneak it, so will go for them three.
The top of the table is looking a bit alien at the moment. Are Liverpool going to be knocked back of their perch? Who are your favourites to win the League, and who will fill the next three places?
Yeah, it’s been such an odd season so far hasn’t it. Definitely didn’t see Aston Villa having the start they have had, they were awful last season. Leicester have started well again, and don’t think they will fade as badly as they did last year. Chelsea look a lot better than they did last campaign, and think bringing Thiago Silva in was a masterstroke.
Still don’t think you can look past Man City and Liverpool for the top two though. If I’m going to go out on a limb, I think Liverpool might do it again. Behind them; Chelsea, Tottenham and Leicester.
Of course the last time you were relegated was the season that West Ham understandably forgot to dot a couple of “i’s” and cross the odd “t” here and there on Carlos Tevez’s contact, but that’s all ‘water under the bridge’ now……isn’t it?
Was waiting for a question on ‘He who must not be named”. Well, I think most Blades fans had started to forget about it up until last year, when we were greeted by streams of Claret and Blue clad people wearing Carlos Tevez facemasks in the Stratford area. The truth is, that while the feelings aren’t as raw anymore, there will always be animosity over the Tevez affair I’m afraid. That’s animosity towards West Ham and the FA. Think Blades fans still struggle to understand why West Ham were only punished with a £5m fine, when teams had previously been docked points for lesser offences. “But we paid you £20m in the end,” I imagine most Hammers fans reading this will say. “But that was at a time when Kevin Blackwell was our manager,” most Blades will reply.
Still a bit raw then! Any particular memories of West Ham v Sheffield Utd games of the past?
For obvious reasons, which I’ve tried to avoid going into detail in in the previous question, it has been a while since we’ve played West Ham. Remember more about what happened before and after the game last year than what actually happened on the pitch. But to be fair that might have been because it was quite hard to see the pitch. You guys do like to sit far back, don’t you? It was the first time I have had a pre-match drink in a hotel bar, the Holiday Inn in Westfield. And then that walk from the Olympic Stadium to Stratford tube station might be one of the longest post-match walks I have done. Don’t think I got on the Jubilee Line until half seven. Between then and 2007, I’m trying to remember. There was League Cup win for us on penalties, when Michael Doyle hit the winner and did the old Cockney Shuffle, but don’t think there has been anything other than that. Can still remember both matches from the last time we were in the Premier League. There was the 1-0 to West Ham at Upton Park, where Rob Kozluk had a perfectly ok goal ruled out in the closing minutes to deny us a crucial point (I suppose it does all even out in the end, doesn’t it?). Then there was the fateful day when we smashed you lot 3-0 at the Lane and thought we had secured our Premier League status. Can’t remember how that season ended. Do have a vague recollection of a 3-3 at Bramall Lane where Jon Harley scored an absolute screamer for you, and then there was an FA Cup third round tie where we drew 1-1 at Upton Park in the mid-noughties. Marlon Harewood scored against us, again.
Which West Ham player, if any would you like to see in your team, and why?
Does Robert Snodgrass still play for you?(checks internet). It might sound weird, but he seems to always play well against us, and usually scores too. As discussed above, an all action offensive midfielder who can drive with the ball is something we are missing. Don’t think he has played much for you this season and wouldn’t mind if it stayed that way. To be honest, I would pick most of the West Ham team right now. Would have Manuel Lanzini in my Blades team any day. A little creative midfielder would be perfect. But if I had to pick one, it would have to be Michail Antonio. Think most Prem clubs would want him. Even if he did used to play for the pigs (Sheffield Wednesday), have always thought he was a top player. Can pretty much play any position, gives you everything on the pitch, and his upper body seems to get bigger every season.
He is a beast! How will Sheffield Utd line up against us this weekend? Players/formation please?
Few injury worries with Jon Egan, Enda Stevens and Rhian Brewster. There are murmurs Fleck could be back in contention too. Ampadu could play in midfield or left centre back, I’ve gone with him in midfield.
Centre backs: Chris Basham, Jon Egan, Enda Stevens
RWB: George Baldock
LWB: Max Lowe/Ben Osborn
CM: Sander Berge Ethan Ampadu Jon Fleck (fingers crossed, if not Jon Lundstram)
FW: Oli McBurnie Rhian Brewster
Finally, last season you took 4 points off us. Will you be able to notch your first win of the season against us on Sunday? Prediction for score?
It’s a huge game for us, absolute must-win. I think we will do it. We will definitely concede, so I’m going for 2-1. Who better to turn our season around than against those dodgy geezers from East London.
Well many thanks to Jack for probably the most thorough response to a Q&A during the last three years: I think this could have doubled up as an episode of ‘In Treatment’! I must confess to having an admiration of Chris Wilder, and would like him to turn around their fortunes – starting after this weekend! I’m going for a 1-2 away victory, more if Antonio is playing! COYI
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