Reading face Premier League opposition in the FA Cup for the first time this season, as Sheffield United visit the Madejski Stadium in the fifth round. Ahead of the game we caught up with Blades fan Chris Davis Smith to discuss the club’s “fairytale” first season back in the top-flight, the importance of Oli Norwood and how he predicts the tie panning out. You can find Chris on Twitter here.
Give us an overview of your season so far
Our return to the Premier League following twelve years out of the top flight has been nothing short of a fairytale. The 1-1 draw against Brighton last time out at Bramall Lane lifted us to the 40 point mark with eleven games to spare, which is a remarkable achievement. Back in August, I don’t think even the most optimistic of Sheffield United fans thought we’d be safe by February, but we’ve adapted to the level superbly. Who knows what could happen from now until May? I think most Blades fans are simply enjoying the ride, although the prospect of potentially qualifying for Europe is certainly generating a sense of excitement amongst supporters. The possibility of reaching the latter stages of the FA Cup can’t be ruled out either! In short, there hasn’t ever been a better time to be a Blade.
You’ve taken to the Premier League very well so far, what are the main reasons for that?
Our style of play has gained a lot of media recognition this season, and it’s hard to disagree with how effective the 3-5-2 system has been for us. Chris Wilder and Alan Knill began to implement this system back in 2016 when the club were in League One, and it’s now reached the point where it’s a well oiled machine. It has been tweaked along the way, but I think it comes down to a lot of teams not knowing how to cope with the overlapping centre-backs and phases of play where we overload the opposition. Some sides have tried to match us up tactically, but often it’s been the case where we’re just more well versed in the formation.
How important is former Royal Oli Norwood to this Sheffield United side?
Without question Oli Norwood has been one of Chris Wilder’s best signings. To sign a player with his passing range for just two million pounds feels like daylight robbery in hindsight, and I’m convinced if we hadn’t bought him, we’d still be in the Championship. He’s had no problem in stepping up a level, and after three consecutive promotions from the Championship, he deserved a chance in the Premier League. Thankfully, he’s flourishing for us with his ridiculous ability to pick a man out, almost like a quarterback would in American football at times. For me, he’s definitely the cog in this well-oiled machine.
What are the main strengths of this Blades side?
Everybody at the club seems to have completely bought into Chris Wilder’s vision for the club, so if you’re going to beat Sheffield United at the minute, you have to leave absolutely everything out on the pitch. Just ask Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp. The team unity is evident, as well as the bamboozling formation we often play, which is carried out by players who possess incredible fitness levels. The coaching staff demand 100% from the players out on the pitch and right now they’re certainly getting it. Under Chris Wilder, if you don’t work exceptionally hard, you don’t make the team.
Are there any weaknesses that Reading could exploit?
At times this season we’ve perhaps not scored enough goals, so if Reading manage to get their noses in front, we could potentially struggle to get back into it depending on who plays. For instance, David McGoldrick - who’s had a brilliant season in terms of his contributions to the team - hasn’t scored yet in the Premier League and doesn’t look confident when he gets an opportunity. Despite this, he’s still managing to get in the right areas, and he netted on 15 occasions in the Championship last season for us.
How do you see the game going, and what will the score be?
I’ve always really liked John Swift at Reading, whilst George Puscas and Ovie Ejaria have impressed me this year for the Royals. I think you realistically need to score first to have any chance of reaching the quarter finals, but I know the Sheffield United players will be itching to get back out onto the pitch after having the weekend off. I’m going to go 2-0 in favour of the visitors.