Billy Sharp, the homegrown Sheffield United star, admitted he was “embarrassed” and that was one regular insult, amongst others, hurled at United’s players as they embarked on a so-called ‘lap of honour’ to thank their supporters at the end of last season.
United had just inexplicably limped to an 11th-placed finish in League One, their lowest in the English football pyramid for some time, and Nigel Adkins’ reign was well and truly unravelling.
It would probably be generous to say that a thousand Blades fans stayed behind and many echoed the feelings of one supporter from the Kop, with “embarassment to the club and city” and “disgrace” two stand-out sentiments aimed at the players and Adkins.
Footage of his rant is still available on YouTube, but it may as well be on British Pathé newsreel; such is the remarkable transformation undertaken by Chris Wilder and Alan Knill since inheriting the reigns at Bramall Lane last summer.
United’s points tally is 16 higher than last season’s, with six games of the season still to go. But the story of United’s season is about more than that.
It cannot be measured simply in points and places; it is a story of reuniting fans, breathing belief back into players and reconnecting the two after years of near-misses and faltering promotion pushes.
A few beers on the coach back from Millwall turned United’s season around. In midweek, the players met up in Wetherspoons to celebrate Jack O’Connell’s 23rd birthday with a pint.
What’s not to love about, in an era of sports science and gegenpressing, old-school methods getting superb results?
Even a cursory glance over United’s last 30 years or so throws up the names of three especially successful bosses; Dave Bassett, Neil Warnock and now Wilder. All obviously talented managers but, without typecasting unfairly, also of a certain type. And one that United, as a club, obviously responds to - far more, at least, than they did to Adkins’ unwavering positivity, anyway.
As Sharp put it this week: “I said to the lads after Millwall: ‘We need to shake our heads and get some results because if he is giving us drinks after a defeat and one point from four games, then imagine what he could be like if we win some games’.”
After three defeats in 36 games, they’re finding out. As are the long-suffering fans. One tweeted me this week: “Thank Chris for giving us our club back. So proud to be a Blade again thanks to him.”
The secret? The man himself says it’s fairly simple: ‘Run around and care.’
“That’s what I’d want if I was watching my team,” Wilder - a man who, of course watches his boyhood team on a daily basis - admits.
“The fans will forgive most things if you run around, be together and show some bravery, both physically and mentally to compete and make something happen.”
Players can do great things with an injection of confidence and after half an hour with Wilder in his office earlier this season, even this humble sports writer felt ready to run through a brick wall for him. Luckily, United have far better footballers to do that as they close in on that long overdue promotion back to the Championship - and beyond.
Wilder and his players, I suspect, won’t be alone in drinking to that.