Last week I caught up with ex-Blade and current Burton Albion defender John Brayford, I got in touch with him to discuss his time at Bramall Lane and how it came about that he left the club plus his thoughts on how the club are doing now. First of all, a huge thanks to John for giving up his time to have a chat, not only a great bloke to speak with but also very open and honest.
John quickly became a cult figure at the Lane with his dynamic performances from right back and of course that goal against Charlton to take us to Wembley, not to mention his beard! Things didn't quite work out how he or the club had planned in the end but I'll leave it to him to tell you about that...
You joined the Blades back in January 2014 when we were struggling and languishing at the wrong end of League One, did you know a great deal about the club before you joined on loan?
Everyone had heard of Sheffield United and what they’re all about, it’s a massive club – I had a couple of loan options but with Nigel (Clough) being there it was a big pull for me and a great opportunity to get back enjoying my football. Cardiff didn’t work out as I wanted it to, and a few things went on there that weren’t really to my liking. Before I joined United, I was supposed to play for Cardiff in the FA Cup on the Saturday at Bolton and I said no as I wanted to get the deal done and thank god I wasn’t cup tied given the FA Cup run we went on. I knew I had a great opportunity to play for the club and get into the team as long as I could show them what I was all about.
This was the 3rd time Nigel Clough had managed you, how did the move come about?
He just got in touch and offered me a great chance to come and play some football, he knew the situation at my end and that I was looking for a move. Not many players drop out of the Premier League to play in League One after I’d moved for a big fee in the summer and then in 6 months I’d gone down a league from where I was previously. But it’s something I’ll never regret doing, even now looking back – it’s one of the best times I’ve had throughout my career.
You made your debut at home to Fulham in the FA Cup, how was that?
Yeah, I made my debut at Bramall Lane and then we drew so had the replay away at Fulham on the Tuesday night. Even to this day that game away at Craven Cottage is in the top 3 games I’ve ever played in. I know some people might not look at it like that but that game was the propeller moment to kick that squad on and push us up the table. We got such a lot of confidence from that game, Shaun Millar scored in the last minute and that just created a buzz around the club again.
I just couldn’t believe that on a Tuesday night for an FA Cup game, when some people think the competition has lost its shine – Sheff Utd take about 5,000 fans down to Craven Cottage midweek! Don’t get me wrong, Cardiff and Derby have great fan bases and are big clubs but it was just different at United. It’s the live and soul of Sheffield. Growing up in Stoke-on-Trent, Stoke City and Port Vale were the beating hearts of the city and that just made Sheff Utd really connect with me, it’s a city I wanted to live within in and enjoy everything about it and dive in head first.
Did you move to Sheffield when you joined the Blades?
Yeah, I’ve literally only just sold my house in Sheffield. I’ve always said it might be a place I’d look to go back and live I enjoyed it that much. Especially going round Kelham Island; after a game on a Saturday me and my Dad would always go down Kelham Island and have a couple of pints, it was just a great city to be in and that drew me in as well as the football club. When you’re getting 30,000 fans in League One you know you’re playing for a huge football club.
I don’t think anyone expected a loan signing to become such a fans favourite as quickly as you did, nor has there ever been as many beards in Sheffield – did you expect anything like that when you joined on loan?
Nah, not one single bit – the beard thing wasn’t even intentional either, I’ve always had a beard and it was just something people seemed to grab onto in a sense. I hope the fans see me as someone who really wanted to play for the football club and be a part of the city. I had such a passion for it, even going to training it really was a privilege to play for Sheffield United. Maybe that’s why the fans took to me as hopefully that passion showed in my performances.
From a fans perspective, you will always have the backing of everyone if you put 110% in every week...
I agree, I always remember people telling me that you’d get a bigger cheer at Bramall Lane with a crunching tackle than scoring a 30-yard screamer and that really epitomises the club and that really hit home with me! I will always say, and not to over exaggerate – it was such a special couple of years for me. Things didn’t quite work out at the end through injuries and I haven’t got the slightest bad word to say about any aspect of the club.
How was the dressing room when you joined, the togetherness was clearly there behind the scenes but that wasn’t translating onto the pitch?
Dressing rooms are down when you’re not doing so well and some people point fingers and blame but Nigel as a manager got the players together and made us click – it was a big part of his management style – having a group of players who are all pulling in the same direction. It took a bit of time to bed that process in but as soon as it did the momentum began to build, the fans got onside and everything started to look a lot brighter and then things just took off. It was such a great dressing room to be in.
We hardly lost from January to the end of the year and kept collecting clean sheets – we just felt invincible at that time. If we’d had a few more games that season we’d have made the play offs. I know Sheff Utd have had a lot of bad experiences in the playoffs, but had we got there that season I really believe we’d have gone up – we had that much momentum.
That season Bramall Lane slowly became a fortress and as much as it was a huge game for the smaller clubs, no one wanted to come and play us there – like it has been for the last 4 seasons under Chris, most of the Premier League clubs will hate playing at Bramall Lane at this moment in time.
The FA Cup run brought up a possible tie with either Charlton or Sheffield Wednesday, who did everyone at the club want in the next round?
I really think it was a bit mixed, obviously we were a League One club then and playing Wednesday we would’ve been the underdogs but the way I saw it I would’ve loved to play Wednesday. The Steel City derby would have taken a bit out of our game though I think, you get drawn into the opposition and there would be so much more tension. We were playing that well though we felt like we could beat anyone.
That game against Charlton was an incredible afternoon at Bramall Lane, what are your memories of that day?
Wow, what a day. I can hardly remember it to be honest. The atmosphere was incredible and the game was a blur – I can just remember coming out at the end in t-shirts that said ‘we’re going to Wembley’ and the Greasy Chip Butty song bursting out. The noise that day, the stadium was shaking – it really was incredible. I can hardly even remember the moment I scored, I got lost in the moment and it felt really surreal, easily one of the best moments of my career.
We then went on to play Hull at Wembley, a game which finally saw us score at the national stadium – how were the nerves and expectation ahead of that game?
It was a bit different for a lot of the lads to be honest because of the media and attention surrounding it, it was a big change for a large chunk of the team. But the lads at that stage just thrived on it. I don’t think the nerves got to us that day I really don’t. The lads buzzed off playing at Wembley and got a real taste for the big occasions. It’s still the biggest disappointment of my career, not because we lost the game but for the fact I firmly believe we should have won that game.
I think most Blades fans really believed when we scored the second half it could be our day – and then came a very crazy second half…
I don’t know why we let the game become that open in the second half I really don’t, I don’t know what happened – leading at half time and scoring that second so quickly really knocked them. We were 45 minutes away from a League One club competing in an FA Cup final. I still can’t watch that game back to this day because it still hurts and I know we should and could have won that game. Then you get to the final and your taking on the likes of City or Arsenal and it would have been huge.
Were your plans at the end of that season to stay at Bramall Lane or to go back to Cardiff?
I’d spoken with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who was the Cardiff manager at the time about my future and he was very clear he wanted me in his team for the following season and to be honest when I went back my head was back in Sheffield. But it was my job to go and play for Cardiff as that’s who I was contracted to. We had some great lads at Cardiff that year and I enjoyed my time – but then January came and I had to make a choice. Did I want to get back to Bramall Lane and play in League One or play in the Championship on a higher wage so that was the dilemma I had.
Did you feel expectation following that move back to Bramall Lane, based on the number which was believed to be around £1.3m which was a huge fee for our club at that time?
I didn’t really feel the expectation I was more excited to get back than anything – if you don’t have a good game you do get people who say ‘my god, I can’t believe we paid that much for him’ but that didn’t really get to me because I wasn’t the one who paid the money for myself, that was the two clubs coming to an agreement.
I was just happy to play for Sheffield United again, most of the lads were the same and I was so eager to get back playing in front of the fans. I couldn’t even class it as a job, I always thought; I can’t believe you’re paying me to do this because I’m enjoying it that much.
That season we fell short in the play-offs at the hands of Swindon Town, Nigel then lost his job – how was that for you considering he was the one who brought you back?
It was very disappointing for me, I got injured in the first leg at Bramall Lane and I really tried to play on, people think I jacked it in and didn’t want to play but I was out for around 6/7 months following that. Then Nigel left and a lot of people thought I threw my toys out of the pram, but that seriously was never the case.
Yes, Nigel was the manager and we got on but it was the football club that meant the world to me – we had a good bond as a player/manager relationship but I was still at the club I wanted to be at and you aren’t just playing for the manager at a team like Sheffield United, you’re playing for the fans and to be the pride of the city as well.
Nigel Adkins then came in and we got on well, it’s just when he arrived I was obviously still recovering from the injury I picked up in the play-offs.
Nigel Adkins reign is considering widely as one of the worst times at the football club and none of the fans really took to him at all, what was it like playing for him?
This is no disrespect to Adkins, but I just don’t think he was the right fit for the football club – in no way am I saying he’s a bad manager but the Sheff Utd fans want to see a manager like Wilder who wears his heart on his sleeve on that touchline and kicks every ball. The Blades fans are able to connect more so with a manager like that.
Especially come of the back of the play-off loss and the cup runs the season before, there was probably more expectation than there had been in a while really given the clubs he’d been at and what he’d done in his career. To get his methods across it was more of a building process with the lads in the dressing room at that time but the fans need results on the pitch and I do understand where they were coming from in the sense that they didn’t see that passion from him – he was much more methodical than anything.
Following Adkins departure, Wilder then arrived – had you ever come across him before in football?
No never, I’d obviously heard of him and heard great stories of how he turned clubs arounds and had done very well but had never actually met him.
You started the first 3 games under Wilder, was it in your mind that you would be leaving the club in that transfer window?
No, nothing like that at all. I always got on so well with Chris and there was never any bad feeling whatsoever. People have always said that he got rid of me or wanted me out of the club because my head wasn’t in it – but it wasn’t like that, we had a great relationship. It was just the fact I was in the second year of my contract at that point and my wages had increased, and we’d started the season and not done very well at all in those three games and ahead of the Millwall away fixture he came to me and told me some money needed freeing up from the wage bill as he wanted two or three other players.
I was told if I stayed I was going to play and be a part of that team but it would do both him and the club a favour if I went out on loan. Burton had enquired and were in the Championship at the time so could take on the bulk of the wages. I needed some time to think about the conversation as this was on the Wednesday ahead of the Millwall game on the Saturday. After considering it Chris and I had another chat and we agreed that I was going to go out on loan and make the move. Following that he changed the formation to 3-5-2 and as they say – the rest is history!
Going back though the summer after I had pre-season training there with the lads and spoke with Chris throughout that summer, but obviously United had done so well the year before and got promoted which caused me a big problem as my wages went up again! I had really killed my own opportunity at Sheff Utd by the initial contract that I signed, so I didn’t do myself any favours in that sense. But it’s never about any individual especially at Sheff Utd – and nothing has made me happier than seeing them fly up the leagues and do as well as they have.
I know some players are bitter about old clubs doing well – its actually quite common but every time they’re on the telly I’m watching them and cheering them on and wanting them to win. Especially Chris as well – he’s worked so hard to get his football club where it deserves to be.
It’s really refreshing to hear your side of things, there hasn’t really been much coverage of what happened at the end of your time with Sheffield United…
A lot of people assume things and then some people take that as fact and then before you know it people think that definitely happened and it was never the case. People say I fell out with Wilder – but I’ve text Chris numerous times since I’ve left, when Couttsy went into hospital at Burton with his leg break and then when the lads have done well or got promoted or whatever – we’ve got a good relationship. It was just the fact at that time – he needed more players in, and that worked out incredibly well for him and the club.
But it was only going to be a matter of time before Sheff Utd did what they did, the club is too big to be in League One.
Did you ever expect the likes of Bash and Sharp to be plying their trade in the Premier League and especially Bash who has picked up a number of accolades at the end of season awards this year?
I always knew I was playing with good players at the club and there was always a good team there. When things are going well at Bramall Lane it is the best place in the world to play your football and when things aren’t some players go into their shell a bit – but the players you mentioned never did that.
Also when the lads are playing with better players the likes of who they’re bringing in now that brings out their qualities even more so – but its such a credit to those lads on how they’ve stuck with the club and rose to the challenge.
Lastly from me, have you been back to Bramall Lane since you left and do you still speak with any of the lads?
I still speak to Si Moore quite a lot and text them sometimes I’m big pals with Couttsy who’s obviously left now but I’ve never actually been back since I left. It will be something I’d love to do in the future and get back to Bramall Lane, certainly not in the posh seats though I just want to go and sit in the Kop and watch them. I guess it’s pretty hard to get a ticket these days now!
Saying that though, my Dad used to come home and away when I played at United and it was a struggle to get him a ticket sometimes they went that quick, especially for the away games! That reminds me of a good story though – my Dad and brother went to Fulham away in the Cup on the Tuesday night, my Mum rang me Thursday afternoon and said they weren’t back yet. They were still in London celebrating the win!
Thank you once again to John for giving up his time to speak with us, and thank you for reading. Follow us on social media @SUFC_memories.