ONE was a Dutch master who reinvented football, starred in a World Cup and imbued Barcelona with their legendary ethos.
The other a bloke from Yorkshire who jobbed around England’s lower leagues and once lugged bricks across a building site.
On paper, at least, Johan Cruyff and Chris Wilder don’t have much in common. Yet appearances can be deceptive.
Cruyff, who died in 2016, understood implicitly that sport is entertainment first and competition second.
“Winning is an important thing,” he said. “But to have your own style, to have people admire you – that is the greatest gift. Yes, quality without results is pointless. But results without quality is boring.”
Results with quality. Does any phrase better encapsulate the philosophy that has propelled Sheffield United into the Premier League?
Two strikers. Overlapping centre-halves. Wing-backs searing past forwards. To watch the Blades is to be reminded why you loved football in the first place.
United expose the duplicity of flat-back-ten merchants moaning ‘What do you want me to do? If we try to go toe-to-toe against them, we’ll get smashed’.
Because United go toe-to-toe with everyone, despite limitations that others might use as excuses.
Owners at war. A mid-table budget. Of the team that effectively sealed promotion with a 2-0 victory over Ipswich last weekend, Billy Sharp, Chris Basham, John Fleck, Mark Duffy and Jack O’Connell were all with the Blades in League One.
Enda Stevens and George Baldock were plucked from League Two. David McGoldrick was signed on a free from Ipswich with such scant competition for his services that United could afford to offer a short-term deal.
These aren’t extravagantly talented superstars on Hollywood wages. They are simply good players given licence to express themselves by a manager dedicated to offensive football.
That is not to say there is a ‘right’ way of playing. Neil Warnock won Cardiff fans’ hearts with a style straight out of the eighties. Sean Dyche is beloved at Burnley.
Wilder himself would scorn any notions of idealism, arguing that all-out attack was a pragmatic choice designed to exploit an unsuspecting division.
United, though, prove that style is always a choice. And that any manager, given modest backing and a couple of windows, could craft a side to attack.
Fans are beginning to recognise that, too. It is why Jose Mourinho was drummed out of Manchester United, his petty insistence on highlighting his trophy haul only highlighting his disregard for aesthetics.
It is why Tony Pulis is on the precipice at Middlesbrough and will surely topple if they fail to secure a play-off spot today. Yes, Boro fans want success. But they also want to be entertained.
And why shouldn’t they? Time, after all, has a tendency to smudge life’s finer details. In 20 years, nobody at Bramall Lane will remember the victories, the games, or the points.
They will remember the feeling. Of turning up every week expecting goals and great football. Of trudging home on winter nights warmed by optimism and excitement. Of a bond shared with a manager who knew what they wanted and players having a ball.
That is what football should be. That is what Wilder delivered.
And as Cruyff himself said: “When you make it special, for you and everybody watching, there is no medal better than that.”