Jack O’Connell Our most consistent defender over the last 2 seasons. He has made mistakes and had poor games but he for the most part is the defender you can rely on. I was not sure with the step up if he would have the pace or athletic ability to cope but he has been fine. He started season a bit slowly but then grew into it and as we surged up the table was excellent. His lung bursting runs forward carried on but he also defended well and won most of his battles. Decent on the ball and not as slow as you think, he is also fearless in the tackle and a real battler. He had a bit of a down spell around Xmas (as others did) but got back to form. I love his appetite for the game and the fact he battles so hard. Quietly effective. He surprised me skill wise with some of the things he did and some of his passing and touch and move was very good when supplementing the attack. He played some really good balls or crosses when he went forward but also at times; like some of the other centre backs and wing backs could do better with his final ball.
One of main critics of him is that he has not scored this season which is ridiculous as he missed so many good headed chances and some with his feet too. He should have had at least 4 or 5 goals but did not score any after having scored 6 goals the season before. He has switched off once or twice but not made lots of errors and overall he has been a steady to decent player most games. He has played every game I believe and every minute which a great achievement in is the hurly burly of modern day football where players get knocks, get rested or get suspensions
Cannot recall too many bad games he had. He looked a bit tired at the end of the season but played every game. At 24; he is entering his prime and he has been an excellent signing for us and one of players that has coped with step up comfortably. Indeed, if he keeps progressing there is no reason why he cannot play higher. I look at likes of Mawson, Tarkowski, Cook (Bournemouth centre back) and a few others that have moved up the leagues and can see no reason why he cannot do what they are doing.
Grade B+ (Last season A-)
Chris Basham Seems to have been here forever now but this is only his fourth season. He has had 3 managers in that time and every one played him in one position or another. He is a steady eddy that never seems to let the team down. He puts 100% in every game. Yes, he makes mistakes now and again and going forward does not always make the right choices but what effort he puts in every game. He leaves it all out on the field. He started the season not great with some errors in away games at Middlesbrough and also at Cardiff but slowly he got used to the step up. Mainly played at right centre back, he did have a few games at right wing back (not quite as successful – Fulham game for instance) and then also some in midfield where he also did fine (Wednesday away)but the position in the back three seemed to suit him.
He could still get forward, still run with the ball and still show his boundless energy. He reads the game very well and make lots of interceptions and then is off to the races. Played his part in some surging attacks this season and been inspirational in many home games. Felt he got better and better as the season went on. Sure, he still made the odd error and some were crucial and as I say he panics a bit when in the last third but he never stops. His passing, control and skill seems to have improved and even though final product often poor when in last part of field, in other areas of the field he seems to keep it better than he used to and uses it well. Seen many mazy dribbles too when he bursts forward. Become an ever present pretty much and one of those names, that if fit, will start. Coped with step up comfortably and should be a big part of what we do going forward. I think if we bring better players in, he may have to up his game even more but at the moment he has been one of our more consistent performers. A bit of a cult hero and a really underrated player in this side.
Grade B+ (Last season A-)
Richard Stearman A signing that was a little underwhelming but Wilder needed some Championship experience. He had tried to sign Ryan Bennett but he went to Wolves and could not get Lenighan from Blackburn so Stearman came in. He had played at this level much of his career for Leicester, Wolves and Fulham but he was not a player that I also thought was that secure and felt he always had a mistake in him. Tall but not that dominant but a decent ball player I remembered. He started the season and was very edgy in the early games and then got injured pulling his hamstring at Cardiff and then he missed 16 straight games. He had not started the season that well and was one of weaker players and Carter Vickers came in, Wright played and we did well and he was not missed.
By the time he came back in, we had gone top but had lost Coutts and had a few tricky home results and a few defenders had started to drop off. He played in three straight defeats but was one of our better players. He gave a penalty away at Villa but then slowly he got better and became very consistent. Even though our form was patchy and we gave goals away; I felt Stearman was one of our most consistent players in the second half of the season. Many games I went away and felt he was largely faultless. Some fans still cried out for Jake Wright citing our defeats down to him not playing. I think that was nonsense. There was an argument of Wright’s organisational skills but we have to play much deeper when he plays. With Stearman we can play higher up. When he went off against Cardiff we dropped deeper and conceded and then let in some poor goals against Barnsley when he did not play. He went off against Millwall and we conceded again but I felt he was poor himself on the first goal at Birmingham. Overall, he proved to be a decent signing and was quite steady and one of our better players in the second half of the season. He does not maybe dominate enough but that is not how he plays but with 3 players of a similar ilk, it means from corners, set plays and balls into the box we could be concede daft goals and that has happened at times. I would not be averse to us upgrading in this area in terms of trying to stop us being too soft in this area but with lack of funds you feel the back three that played most of the games may start the opening to the season.
Grade B- (Last season NA)
Jake Wright Wright had been a revelation the previous year as he came in and never lost a game that he started. He was unflappable and reliable. An organiser who talked, read the game and kept the defence together. You did fear the step up might be a bit much. He lacked pace and also had played all his career at League Two and non-league before joining United’s rise. I felt he would still play a part though and so it proved. He was never a regular this year and played a lot less games which I expected but had spells in the side and never really let us down. Sure, he had a few games where you could see his lack of pace and he did make a few mistakes but overall he was a steady 7/10 most games when he did play. Wilder preferred Stearman and Carter Vickers and many fans felt he was better (granted Stearman did well 2nd half of the season) and that Wright should have played.
He ended up only starting 12 league games and the bulk came in August, Sept and October. After Xmas he stated a couple of cup games but then only played at Barnsley as a start and the defence made some poor mistakes. Hard for him when he had been out of the side and may feel harshly treated but then Wilder seemed to want more pace a defence that could play a bit higher up. He is a useful lad to have around and would like him to remain. At 32 and the fact pace was never a factor; he is a great lad to have around as cover and to play the odd game. Whether he is happy doing this is another story. He is out of contract. I would give him another one-year deal – even though I feel we need another centre back and he has proven he can do ok which Heneghan; another alternative option has not yet done that.
Grade C+ (Last season A-)
Daniel Lafferty Had been steady in League One and a regular but a few difficult defensive moments against quick wingers always made you feel Wilder may bring in some competition. Enda Stevens came in but you were not certain who would start but the newcomer got the gig and never looked back; at least early on. Lafferty played in the cup games but was not quite convincing and I recall him then being used in midfield against Preston and at Leicester in the cup but was quite poor and gave the ball away a lot and looked very slow. He came on more earlier in the season to plug the left-hand side if teams attacked down there but his appearances became less and less and he was not even on the bench very much as the games went on.
He then got back on the bench and was used in a game against Millwall but despite Stevens form dropping off; he was never considered. Many said he should be playing but I think that is more around we had no other options than him to replace Stevens. I think most realised he was not better than him but maybe just deserved a go as Stevens had been poor for a run of games. The fact Wilder did not play him says a lot and I am not sure he is someone Wilder sees as playing more than the odd fill in game or sub appearance. I would not be totally surprised if we got some better competition for Stevens if he moved on. Is a solid player at League One level but not sure he is quite good enough for the level we are at or aspire to now.
Grade D+ (Last season B-)
Enda Stevens started the season superbly and looked a top, top signing. Faded badly around Xmas time and had a bad few months and ought to have been dropped but then got back to form and played better to end the season. Signed from Portsmouth on a free, after stating his career at Villa and then having to drop down. The Pompey fans were gutted he left and he was one of their stand outs as they won the league. Many United fans had reservations if he was going to start (no guarantee as Lafferty was still around and had been steady enough) as it was a big leap to go up two divisions but he started really well in the opening game and continued this form. Got forward to attack, defended well and a decent ball player. He looked very composed and sure of his play. Just really consistent and he bombed up and down, putting some good balls into the box. Also had a few efforts on goal.
As United’s form dropped off, he was one of main players who had performed so well that started to also tail off. He started to lose his man more, his passing and touch was off. He just started to struggle and he became quite inconsistent in games. Recall a few crucial errors but overall, he went from a 7-8/10 to a 6 at best and even lower some weeks. Tendency to let players come inside happened too much and led to a number of goals coming from his opponent down that side.
He slowly got back to form as United did too and buoyed by getting into the Republic of Ireland squad, started to return to levels he set. His final ball became better and he started to knock some better balls into the box and showed a resurgence of energy as he was key in some really good performances again especially at Bramall Lane. However, he had some poor displays in crucial away games at Barnsley and at Birmingham and made an error in the crucial home game against Millwall and started to look weary as the season ended.
His qualities are his fitness, energy levels and touch when under pressure. He is a decent ball player and love the way he links with likes of Fleck and O’Connell. His go to move is the 1-2 after the throw when he throws in and then goes and receives the return; often from Duffy or Fleck. He is relentless at times and when he plays well it makes such a difference. However, he lacks out and out pace and switches off a bit too much defensively and his final ball for the most part was not good enough. He also does not trust his right foot at all and often pirouettes 360 degrees to use his left foot which gets him into further trouble. Still he had a good first season for us and if he can improve on the stated weaknesses, he could be a mainstay. When he dropped off; Lafferty was not seen as much better and that is a worry as Wilder persisted with him despite it being clear he needed to come out for a bit but he did keep going and ended the season back in better form; if not quite the level that he started it. Like a few others needs to be more consistent but only 27 so coming into his peak years. We need some serious competition for him next season and might be one area we need to improve if we are serious about the top 6.
Grade B- (Last season NA)
George Baldock Did not know much about him other than he was the brother of Sam the striker at Brighton. First noticed him in the game at MK Dons when he was easily the best player for a sorry opponent well beaten by the rampant Blades. He caused us problems with his strong running, pacey attacking skills and good technical ability. Wilder had him for a season at Oxford on loan and obviously he impressed him and signed him for a reportedly small fee (not sure it was more than a couple of hundred grand) to give us competition there. The sort of signing that our local rivals mocked calling him an unknown but we had this before with O’Connell, Fleck etc – so we trusted messrs Mitchell and co that they saw something. He played a bit in pre-season but clearly was not first choice with Freeman’s season. He seemed very pally with another ex MK Don Carruthers and spoke well whenever interviewed. Did quite well in the League Cup game v Leicester and then again at Bolton in his first league start. He played in one of his first games in the pressure cooker at Hillsborough and was excellent and never looked back and was a mainstay of the side as Freeman got injured and he took his chance.
Got better and better and showed real qualities. Fast, athletic, decent on the ball and could run all day. He was a huge forward threat when we attacked and got his first goal v Sunderland and had a few other chances. The only knock is that his final ball was not always good enough and sometimes he overhit it, other times hit the first man. However, I loved his application and he never shirked a battle. When he missed a few games before Xmas and Basham filled in, you saw the difference attacking and defensively. When he got back we improved down this side. Indeed, I felt for a run of a couple of months after Xmas he was one of our best players and really enjoyed watching him improve. He maybe tired at the end of the season and a had a few games where he did not make same impact.
Been a tremendous signing and a real surprise and hoping he can keep improving. Only 25 and now seems to have the shirt which is incredible to think after what Freeman did the year before but for all his good play he has to find a better end product.
Grade B+(Last season NA)
Kieron Freeman Disappointing season for Freeman after his superb season in League One due to injury. He started the season and did ok opening game v Brentford but then I felt struggled with pace and power of wing men in the two next away games and worryingly looked like I felt he might do at this level, someone who did not get tight enough or do the basics defensively as good as he was going forward. He did fine in the two home wins v Barnsley and Derby but was then rested at Bolton after the win at Sunderland and Baldock showed flashes of why we signed him. He got back in versus Norwich but got a knock and then in the game with Ipswich when he got back in; he suffered a bit of a sickening injury. He was then ruled out for quite a few months. Baldock came in and seized his chance and was excellent. It took him some time to come back and then had to play quite a few u23 games. Had one game on the bench at Hull but then Wilder used more attacking players using only Wright or Lafferty knowing he had Basham who could do a job there. However, when Freeman was out and Baldock had a knock, we had to use Bash and/or Carter Vickers in this area and we saw a bit of a drop off so unfortunate he was not available.
Baldock’s form meant he never got back in until the end of the season and had a few games and scored and showed that despite Baldock’s good form; that he offers maybe more of an end product. Some have suggested Freeman to play left back as he did at times in League One but people forget that is when we were poor and that he was not totally convincing. At this level not sure you get away with it really using a right footer in this position and one that struggled defending anyway. He is 26 so still quite young and has another 2 years on his contract. A big summer and pre-season. Has to try and get back in. If he does this is healthy for us and be great if we had this in all areas.
Grade C+ (Last season A-)
Ben Heneghan was a bit of a surprise signing. He came in from Motherwell. Began his career at Stoke and Everton but ended up in non-league with Chester. He had two years there before ending up in Scotland. He did well there and attracted interest North of the Border from a few clubs. It was still seen as a bit of a punt when Wilder signed him. Not sure we spent a lot and he was not exactly young at 24. He did not really feature at all and only had one start against Preston in the Cup. In this game he did ok but lacked pace and mobility.
A big unit who could head it and kick it; it seemed he may be on his way out on loan but this never happened and United remained in the cup so you felt he may be used more but then we went out. After this he was back in the u23’s and did not really get that close to the first team. Not sure as we have pushed on if he going to contend. He needs some games and probably a loan spell but you sense this may have been a low risk-high reward type signing. At worst we may get a bit of cash from loan fees over the next season or so and at best he may get a chance and do ok. I am not sure he will be any closer to the first team squad when the new season starts.
Grade E (Last season Grade NA)
Cameron Carter Vickers was brought in early in the season to add some competition at the back. Stearman had picked up an injury and Basham had switched round from midfield to defence. He made his debut away at Bolton and scored the winner in a clean sheet. He nearly got another! A huge unit for someone so young, he was not slow either and a really big unit. He was a bit hit and miss with his passing at times though but he played well in the derby at Hillsborough and was near enough a main stay for the next spell and started 12 in 13 games after his debut. His form was mixed. He played well in some games but was liable to daft mistakes such as the penalty at home to Wolves. He hit a post at Forest with a header and then was decent in two home games and two wins. At Leeds he made a few mistakes and then at QPR also looked a bit erratic. I recall him making several lung bursting runs in the game at Hull but when he ended up right back more than right centre back you did worry a little! I also remember him being very good in the game at Burton and was seemingly starting to dominate as United went top of the league.
However, he then had a nightmare at home to Fulham being at fault for a couple of goals and making several awful mistakes. He regressed after this with a few patchier performances and then was taken out of the team. He came back in around Xmas but again was bit inconsistent and his form mirrored United’s. It was still somewhat of a surprise when he went back to Spurs. There were some murmurs of a fall out but this was never proved. Stearman got back in and Basham and O’Connell played alongside him and with Wright as cover, it seemed he would not play much. He ended up going back on loan to Ipswich and I saw a few of their games where he was the same. Decent for the most part and used his size to defend well but capable of poor mistakes. Ipswich’s form to end the season was not great in front of some difficult atmospheres at Portman Road as they moved towards a managerial change. He must have realised how good he had it at the Lane. I saw him in a game v Villa at Portman Road and he was shocking making errors all over the place.
Still only 20; he still has time to improve. If he can develop consistency and cut out the mistakes he could at the very least be a solid Championship centre back. He is contracted with Spurs for another two years but you sense he may end up back on loan quite a bit in that time and will have to improve if he is to even give himself a chance of making it at White Hart Lane.
Grade C- (Last season Grade NA)
John Brayford After a loan spell at Burton it was clear the Brewers could not afford him on a full signing and he came back. He was in and around the squad in pre-season and played a few games. I watched him turn in a really disinterested show at home to Hallam at Sandygate and then remarkably saw him walk home with his boots in hand as I left the ground. He had one game in the League Cup but this was a final game for him at Bramall Lane in a Blades shirt. At the end of January, Wilder allowed his contract to be cancelled so he could sign for Burton on a free. He will have had to take a massive wage cut to go back there. It seemed quite a fall from grace. From being in and around the Premier League with Cardiff and then to a hero at United and playing in that great cup run; he then was out of favour with Wilder and ends up back playing in front of a few thousand people in a side that had gone down.
He never seems fit and it maybe he is never fully fit. Only played 21 games. Quite sad really. A real talisman when we signed him first time and did ok for a while in second spell but a few bad injuries, loss of form and him not suiting United’s new way of playing; meant he never quite achieved what many thought he would do at the Lane. Due to his injuries and inability to play more than a few games in a row; it seems he is destined to spend most of the rest of his career in the lower leagues. He is now 30 also and so it is not like any teams higher up will want to sign him anymore.
Grade E (Last season E)
Jake Bennett Bennett joined the Blades from Mickleover Sports during the early part of the 2016/17 season and subsequently penned a deal until the summer of 2018. The powerful and pacey wing-back impressed for the U23s last season and was on the fringes of the first team squad. Playing mainly as a right back; Bennett got a start against Walsall in the League Cup. He then went back to the u23’s and was a regular but then picked up an injury and was not involved even at this level towards the end of the season. He is not young in relative terms for a footballer and is now 22. With Baldock and Freeman under contract and other young players needing a path; I would be surprised if he is retained this summer as he is out of contract.
Grade D (Last season NA)
Chris Husssey had been hailed as a big signing from Wilder but was really poor as United struggled to start the season. He ended up replaced by Daniel Lafferty and then with Enda Stevens coming in was even further down the pecking order. It seemed United were happy for him to move on but with a few others, getting a team to take him permanently would be hard. He ended up on loan with former manager David Flitcroft at Swindon but in League Two. Seemed a bit of a drop off for him. He did well to start with here making and scoring goals and showing his dangerous set play delivery but he picked up a series of injuries and was did not play that many games. He got back in towards the end of the season as Swindon had a new manager in place now in Phil Brown. Hussey is out of contract and at 29 years of age, almost definitely will be released and will probably end up around this level for someone. One of Wilder’s few signings that simply did not work out.
James Wilson scored the vital goal to give Wilder his first win against Oxford but he got a number of injuries and then United switched to a 3-man defence and even when he got back fit; he did not play although came in to start in the ‘party’ game at MK Dons. He was loaned out to Walsall as he seemed way off the first team at United and did well there with many Saddlers fans being pleased with him but he saw the opportunity of a full move in January and united released him to allow him to sign for Lincoln. He probably ended up with a decent contract on a 2-and-a-half-year deal – he would have been released by United anyway. He was in and out of the side due to injury at Sincil Bank as they competed for the playoffs.
Callum Semple was held up by Wilder after impressing in the end of season games for the u18s and u23s when he arrived and seen as one to watch. Semple at only 17 captained the u23’s and looked a Maguire type. Decent size, good on the ball, determined but maybe lacking a bit of pace. He got a bad injury in game around Xmas time of the previous year and only came back around February time which meant he was out for over a year. Seems to be getting back to levels he had before but will need a series of games and maybe a lower league loan spell this coming season. Was given another year’s contract.
Sam Graham is the son of former Sheffield boxing legend, Herol Bomber Graham. His Dad has had his fair share of troubles, well documented in the local press, but Sam has quietly established himself in first the u18 side and now this past season the u23 side. At only 17; he is a big lad who takes after his Dad for physique. Clear scouts at other clubs had been watching him and rumours surfaced of Everton being after him. Probably did not help he had lots of different partners at u23 level but with Semple back; those two have a big future you would help. He got a loan deal to Halifax Town in March and has played a few times for them in the National League.
Stephen Mallon a left sided player who hails from Ireland and controversially switched from Northern Ireland to Republic of Ireland in terms of representative teams. Whenever I have seen him he has shown he has a wand of a left foot and very skilful but had a number of injuries and meant he did not play much this season and in this regard, he faces an uncertain future as believe he is out of contract.
Rhys Norrington Davies a young Welsh defender who plays left back/left wing back and came in from Swansea in 2071. He has been a regular in the u23’s and impressed enough to get a place on the bench for the cup tie at Ipswich. He has been involved in Wales national junior squads. He has another year on his contract/
Keenan Ferguson came from the United futures programme and is a big defender that often-partnered Graham at Academy level. He has done quite well after being released from Chesterfield a few years ago. Still only 17; he got another one-year deal to allow him to develop.
George Cantrill seems to have been around a while. I saw him at Academy level a few years ago and he seemed a very good prospect. He was on the bench in the Checkatrade trophy last season at Grimsby. He has moved between the u23’s to the u18’s and had a few injuries. He has got another year to try and impress.
Jean Belehouan came in from Man Utd. He was used at u18 level and will hope to push on this next season. George Broadbent and William Portman are two other defenders that have been involved at both u18 and occasionally at u23 level.
In terms of next season, you sense we are ok with Baldock and Freeman right back; the left back we have Stevens but feel he needs some proper competition and a better alternative than Lafferty who has more quality/pace. So, one left wing back needed. We have O’Connell, Stearman and Basham and then Heneghan and Wright as cover. Feel one off those two may move on – maybe Heneghan on loan and Wright may want to get first team football and easily could do a job at League One – maybe even lower Championship. Depends if he wants to be a squad player or play every week. We still need one more centre back for me – with a bit of pace as we lack in that area for me. You can also argue that despite the individuals playing well; we have let way too many soft goals in and this has to be addressed. Stevens or Moore have got a lot of stick towards the end of the season but not every goal has been down to them and others have not cleared their lines, lost the vital first or second header (Cardiff, Barnsley, Brentford) in key moments at times.
So, we need one left wing back and one centre back to rival properly the three mainstays. I think all the players can be more consistent with only Baldock being really at it every week almost. The others did really well most of the season but Stearman started badly and the two others had drop offs mid-season before finishing strong. All 3 still need too concentrate more with too many routine goals going in from set plays. This is the one area of the team where we are fairly well set for me but need to make tweaks and improve as a unit and the consistency/concentration two issues to resolve. We did concede the most goals of any of the top 11 (big drop off to 12th) teams that competed for going up or playoffs. However, I think some of that was down to the way we played as much as the defence being abysmal. They could definitely tighten up though when you compare the respective records. I personally in an ideal world would see us sign a big commanding centre back. That may mean Basham or Stearman coming out and also a left back to rival or replace Stevens. These two signings would be lower down the priority list than 2 new strikers and signing a goalkeeper; preferably Blackman, but both are needed if we are going to push on.
Player / Position Years remaining (contract expires)
Jake Bennett Out of contract (2018)
Jake Wright Out of contract (2018)
Chris Hussey Out of contract (2018)
Stephen Mallon Out of contract (2018)
Daniel Lafferty 1 year (2019)
Callum Semple 1 year (2019)
Rhys Norrington Davies 1 year (2019)
Keenan Ferguson 1 year (2019)
George Cantrill 1 year (2019)
Chris Basham 1 year (2019)
Sam Graham 2 years (2020)
Enda Stevens 2 years (2020)
George Baldock 2 years (2020)
Richard Stearman 2 years (2020)
Kieron Freeman 2 years (2020)
Jack O’Connell 3 years (2022)
Deadbat's Season Review / School Report 2017-18- Part Four