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Luke Freeman - School of Hard Knocks

9 September 2019

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For each Premier League issue, UTB, United's official matchday programme, catches up with a member of the playing staff for an in-depth, exclusive interview.

After Phil Jagielka spoke about his first spell with the Blades and how his subsequent return came about ahead of the Crystal Palace fixture, Luke Freeman was next up in the Leicester publication.

The piece which was in excess of 2,000 words was the 'big interview' in the Foxes issue and that will be a reoccurring trend throughout the coming weeks and month, with Oli McBurnie's thoughts set to go to print ahead of the weekend.

At just £3.50, following a first price rise in 15 years, UTB will now be a 100-page publication for every Premier League fixture this season and it packed full of other intriguing content from the players and management, in addition to former favourites of previous eras.

United are currently selling subscriptions to UTB which will ensure a copy delivered to your door on the morning of every game and all can be ordered through our design partners Ignition Sports Media - click here.

The Big Interview with... Luke Freeman

This week UTB caught up with new signing Luke Freeman who, like the majority of United's first team, has had to work hard for his opportunity in the Premier League.
Playing in front of the Bramall Lane faithful has had a career defining impact on new signing Luke Freeman - and this was before kicking a ball in the famous red and white.

Luke joined United in a then-club record deal to become Chris Wilder's first Premier League signing, but despite playing the entirety of his career in the south, his links to S2 are a little more deep rooted than first meets the eye.

After making his professional debut for Gillingham aged just 15, Luke made the move to Premier League giants Arsenal, but had to join the lengthy queue of promising youngsters looking to break into an impressive Gunners first-team.

Like many graduates in the Arsenal setup, the Dartford-born flyer had to make the tough decision of whether to take the risk of leaving the comfortable nest of the Arsenal Academy, or fight for an opportunity at the Emirates Stadium.

It was during his spell with Stevenage where Luke realised he made the right choice, with an experience under the Bramall Lane lights reaffirming his bold decision to further his burgeoning career in the lower leagues of the EFL.

Luke told UTB: "I joined Stevenage on loan initially, before making it permanent. In my first season I was involved in a couple of games here, a league fixture and then the play-off semi-final.

"I recall a full house for the league game which was a draw, and we were then put together in the play-offs.

"I remember it was close in the first-leg, and then it was off to Bramall Lane for the second-leg where the stadium was rocking. I remember it being one of the best atmospheres I have played in. It is funny how football works out in the sense six years or so down the line I have now signed up to play here. It was an amazing atmosphere, and you couldn't help but think how good it would be to play in front of it, week in, week out. I was still really young at the time. I think I would have been about 20, so the game had a really big impression on me and I knew then taking the decision to leave Arsenal was the right one."

After a handful of first-team appearances for Gillingham and a short temporary stint at Yeovil, Luke's initial spell at Stevenage was his first taste of the professional game for an entire year. After making such rapid progress before he turned pro, the all-action ace was now hungry for more opportunities.

Leaving Arsenal, a team he supported from the terraces, was a wrench, but his experience in a losing cause at the Lane left the then 20-year-old disappointed - but vindicated in his decision to swap the cushy lifestyle at the Emirates, for the muck and bullets of League One.

Luke recalled: "At the time, the play-off game was up there with the biggest occasion I had played in. Certainly it was one of the biggest stadiums, if not the biggest. I remember taking quite a lot of it in, even though I was still quite young. I was still new to the League One scene, so to play in that kind of environment was another learning curve for me.

"I'd had the taste of first-team football during the second half of the season, and I wanted more. Playing in front of a live crowd, especially the game at Bramall Lane, it was something I wanted more of. It was one of those moves which again happened so quickly. At the time Stevenage were a top League One side, so going from playing youth football to being in the first-team playing at Bramall Lane was quite a step up, but I really enjoyed it. It was an easy decision in the end to leave Arsenal, I just wanted to play."

Speak to many coaches at youth and academy level, and there will be plenty out there who will say there is no substitute to playing.

Whilst the top academy structures will keep some of their prized assets in house, the opportunity to go out and 'feel' the professional game in the lower leagues is still seen as an all-important part in the development of a player.

But playing for the heavyweights of the Premier League brings a dilemma. Financially, some may never see a bigger contract again, and by hanging in as long as possible, the security benefits are there for all to see.

Luke decided to put his enjoyment of the game first, stating his desire to play football in front of a live crowd every weekend comfortably superseded any financial and emotional grab which he may have had for his boyhood club.

He continued: "The move was the best thing that happened to me. I'd had a taste of first-team football when I was really young, but once bitten, I just wanted to get out there again and again. Sometimes you have to take a step back, and take stock of where you are at in your career. I knew I wouldn't be taken seriously enough until I started playing regular first-team football. Getting out there, and gaining the respect as a first-team player was something I needed to do. There were a lot of players at Arsenal who stayed and signed another one or two years and hung around in the under 23s and maybe played the odd game. I am not knocking them, it is still an achievement, but some of them are not involved in the game anymore. It just goes to show leaving Arsenal was the right decision."

The move to Stevenage helped put Luke firmly on the football map. Fans of the Blades will recall his dynamic displays in the play-off semi-finals, which suggested a big future for a player who was only just out of his teenage years.

His two years at Broadhall Way provided the perfect apprenticeship to life as a professional, as he passed over 100 games in all competitions to further sharpen the skills which were primed by the highly-rated coaches at Arsenal.

Bigger and better things were expected, and it came as no surprise to see his name linked with other clubs. Whilst a move to the Championship would not have been a surprise, Luke decided to stay in League One after securing a switch to Bristol City. During his early days at Ashton Gate, he would again cross paths with the Blades, making his City debut at Bramall Lane - this time in a winning cause.

Luke said: "It is funny how Sheffield United have always popped up at significant places during my career. I remember it was a massive game because - although it was the first weekend of the season - on paper it was two sides you would expect to be pushing for promotion.

"Both teams wanted to get off to the right start, and fortunately for Bristol City on the day, we won. I remember it was a hard-fought game, which stood us in good stead because we won the league that year. Again I was still young, so to have some silverware - we won the Football League Trophy as well - it was a brilliant season for me. It was one of my fondest seasons to date."

His time at Ashton Gate saw a much-deserved elevation into the second tier of English football, with a League One Championship medal, and a Football League Trophy accolade also on the CV. During his first full season at Championship level, Luke made 44 appearances in all competitions as City adapted well to life at the elevated level with a comfortable mid-table finish.

Despite his status amongst the faithful at Ashton Gate, the 2015/16 season would prove to be the beginning of the end for Luke, who found himself on the fringes at times during the following campaign.
It was a desire to play which sparked his departure from Arsenal, and the same impulse ultimately resurfaced, with Luke taking the opportunity to join Queens Park Rangers - a move he says surprised a few people at the time.

Luke remembers: "I loved my time at QPR. I was in and out of the team at the back end of my time at Bristol City, so I made a decision I wanted to go out and play again. The decision may have looked odd - Bristol City kicked on and did well - but for me though it was never a backwards move. I needed to play, and I wanted to enjoy my football. QPR gave me that opportunity and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

"They are a great bunch down there, but we had a couple of tough seasons where we weren't consistent enough to challenge. I enjoyed it though, I was allowed to go out and express myself and play my game. It was a good time for me."

The lure of the Premier League ultimately tipped the balance on a departure from Loftus Road, when the Blades came calling during the close season. Luke has spoken highly of the dressing room he left behind in the capital, as he makes the move north for the first time in his career.

But with United taking the headlines for a close-knit group, fostered by the man-management skills of Wilder and his staff, Luke says within a week of his arrival the place felt like home to him.

He remarked: "I am loving it here. The lads have been brilliant so far. I am one of the new faces but the club has been so welcoming, and after a week I pretty much felt like I was home. It was so easy to fit into the dressing rom.

"The time in Portugal obviously helped on pre-season, I got to know the lads much better out there. There is always a transitional period when you move clubs where you have to adjust to a different kind of life really, but it has been something I have thoroughly enjoyed.

"The manager and staff have been brilliant, and I can't wait to meet the challenge of the Premier League. It is terrific to have been asked to be part of this club and the incredible journey that Sheffield United have got going here."

Luke's back story will be a familiar one to the rest of his teammates. You only have to look through the career history of the likes of Billy Sharp, Chris Basham, David McGoldrick and John Fleck - to name a few - to see they have all paid their dues in the EFL to earn their shot at the big time.

Luke believes the school of hard knocks approach taken by him, and his United contemporaries, will give them a unique quality in the rarefied atmosphere of the Premier League.
The famous togetherness and team spirit which has garnered much praise over the past three years will be key once again, with Luke stressing it could make all the difference as the Blades look to kick on, once again, on their return to the top flight.

He confirmed: "I think the lads have all come from similar backgrounds, and that's why it works, and why it has worked so well over the last three years. The manager is great, and his record here speaks for itself. The lads are hungry, and we want to keep on improving. For me, it was what I wanted to hear.

"I think the key will be keeping the incredible togetherness intact. You see a lot of teams in recent years who have done well in the Premier League - and without being disrespectful I am talking about sides who are not historically top flight mainstays - like Bournemouth and Watford. They have done well, and at the heart of that is a really good team chemistry. If you can stick together, and develop the togetherness, I believe it is one of the hardest things to achieve in football. It will be key to maintain the bond, if we can do that we'll have a good chance of achieving something."

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