Five Stars: Sheffield United's best players in the 21st century
There was only ever going to be one person that would be asked to pick Sheffield United’s five best players of the last decade or so – Blades fan Ian Rands of A United View on Football. Ian has selected five Bramall Lane legends from the Warnock era, two of whom remain at the club today.
If ever a player of recent years had the best spell of his career at Bramall Lane, it was Michael Brown. Arriving from Manchester City, the midfielder was recognised as a skilful left-footed player with question marks over his temperament. However, under the tutelage of Neil Warnock, he utilised that passion and fire to be a driving force in the Blades midfield. This side pursued glory (in the end unsuccessfully) on three fronts in 2002/03 and contributed a glut of goals, some of which will live long in the memory.
Signed for what seemed, at the time, an expensive £400,000 in January 2000, he had impressed on loan at Portsmouth in Neil Warnock’s first game in charge of the Blades. As the loan at Fratton Park finished, Warnock moved quickly for a permanent signing. Brown blossomed at Bramall Lane and fabulous goals followed. In particular, a perfectly executed volley in a derby victory over Wednesday was one of the cleanest strikes of a ball I have ever seen. In 2002/03 he scored 22 goals and could have had his own goal of the season competition.
Brown’s penalty miss, just after half time with the Blades already 3-0 down, in that season’s Play-Off Final against Wolves is perhaps the only real negative moment I can recall. A goal then may have changed the game, but it was an all round team failure that cost us, not just his miss. In fact the absence of Stuart McCall that day was a big factor, a player who sat alongside Brown and allowed the younger player to attack. This is something Brown has been unable to do at any clubs since, where he has seemingly been deployed in more defensive roles.
It is easy to categorise Chris Morgan as a gritty, hard as nails central defender, very much in the old school mould. In doing that, you dismiss so much more that he adds to the teams he plays in. He has been a true leader on and off the pitch, captaining the side to promotion to the Premier League, but also someone who is a willing representative of the club at functions and charity events. He takes his role and responsibilities seriously.
It has been in the tougher times that you notice how much more of a galvanised unit we are thanks to Morgs’ presence. His season-ending injury in November has, to my mind, played a significant role in the Blades’ subsequent and continued decline this season. With a series of loan players and makeshifts filling the centre-back role, nobody has really been taking the responsibility for leadership on the pitch.
He very rarely brings the ball out from the back and delivers a cutting 30-yard ball which spreads play across the pitch – in fact, the odd times he does do this, there is a soundtrack of ironic cheers. What he does is organise the team well, put himself in the right place at the right time and the progress of Jagielka, Walker and Naughton can all in some part be attributed to playing alongside Morgan.
After breaking through into the first team, you could see straight away that United had an accomplished young footballer which, according to Blades tradition, means he was never going to stay at Bramall Lane for very long.
The fact that he was deployed in three different positions and never looked out of place in any of them might also have been his downfall. Would the watching scouts from big clubs see versatility, but not a certain starter in any one position? In the end, that versatility has been acknowledged at international level where his games for England at centre back were supplemented with a start at right-back against France.
As well as becoming a central defensive rock, after spells in central midfield and at right-back, it was his combination of athleticism, ability on the ball and timing of tackle that made him stand out. Goals were rare but when he did score, they were spectacular – a 35-yard last minute equaliser in the Worthington Cup against Leeds and a similarly low, driven howitzer against Middlesbrough in the Premier League. Like Brown, he had a moment to forget on the big occasion – an own goal in the 2-1 defeat to Wigan that contributed to a final day relegation from the Premier League and Jagielka seeing out his final game in red and white stripes laid out on the pitch, distraught.
This may be considered a controversial selection with some Blades fans. By his own admission, he is not a skilful or particularly talented footballer. So what does he offer? The answer is tireless running, harassing, tackling and some of the best man-marking outside of the top tier.
Despite having seen him nullify top class midfielders in the Premier League, he is often vilified by Blades fans for his shooting and passing, both which can be best described as erratic. After a goal against Blackpool towards the end of last season, his first since October 2006, there were T-shirts printed with the message “I have seen Nick Montgomery score”.
Since coming through the ranks at Bramall Lane, he has played a full part in virtually every season since his debut in October 2000. Every manager in that period has seen the merits of Montgomery, but I think his biggest problem has been the players alongside him. One Nick Montgomery in a team alongside a more skilful central partner is fine.
Often, however, he has been paired with another workmanlike team-mate, who often offered little more skill than Montgomery. Therefore fans have seen Montgomery as the one who should make way for more skilful options left on the bench. In reality, a lot of United’s relative success would not have been achieved without him.
Despite the stupidity of his nine-month ban for taking cough mixture before the play-off semi final against Preston, his subsequent departure after seeing out his ban and his ability to raise eyebrows (or occasionally get them bitten off), I have to include Paddy Kenny.
Over my lifetime, United have been blessed by some fantastic custodians between the sticks, Simon Tracey, Alan Kelly, Mel Rees and Paddy deserves to be included for his performances. A fantastic shot-stopper, brave in one-on-one situations, he made numerous vital saves in cup runs and promotion charges. Kenny was prone to errors of judgement, just as he was prone to rapid weight gain. A betting man would have guessed the doping charge resulted from a slimming pill and not cough medicine.
A bargain for the Blades at £42,000, Neil Warnock had originally plucked him from Bradford Park Avenue when managing Bury, before taking him from Gigg to Bramall Lane. Now with Warnock at QPR, he may return to the Premier League next season. I can only think that his well-reported personal problems stopped him moving to a top flight team sooner.