Play the game, not the occasion? Neil Warnock has never heard so much nonsense in his life.
The former Sheffield United manager knows a thing or two about Steel City derbies and believes anyone who pretends this is ‘just another’ fixture is committing a potentially fatal error.
“You’ve got to understand what the match means to the people of the city,” he explains. “Use that feeling, use the passion involved, to bring the best out of you. Of course there’s a balance to be struck, you can’t get completely carried away by things, but it would be a mistake not to tap into the atmosphere.”
Warnock, aged 68, is still the scourge of Sheffield Wednesday 10 years after leaving Bramall Lane. Now in charge of Championship rivals Cardiff City, his side snatched a last gasp equaliser against Carlos Carvahal’s side last weekend. Eighteen months ago, he was also responsible for guiding relegation threatened Rotherham to an unlikely but ultimately deserved victory at Hillsborough.
That contest crops up more than once during our conversation as Warnock discusses tomorrow’s meeting between two of English football’s fiercest rivals. Because, he insists, the circumstances surrounding it reveal how Chris Wilder can ensure his squad enjoys a psychological edge.
“Most neutral observers, and I’m not going pretend that I’m one of those, will expect Sheffield Wednesday to win,” he says. “But, do you know what? I actually think that suits United. They like being the underdogs, that’s how we always wanted it when I was there, and you can take advantage of that. Chris can tell his lads ‘they expect to beat you, most people think they’re going to beat you. Go out there and prove them wrong.”
“The United lads certainly won’t think they’re going to lose though,” Warnock continues. “That’s not the way Chris or his boys are made up. It’s not the way the club is made up either. They’ll feel they’ve got a big, big chance of doing something special. They won’t regard themselves as underdogs, no way. But it is another tool you can use.”
Although many people, particularly those of a blue and white persuasion, will accuse Warnock of mindgames, his words carry weight. Not only because he is a veteran of nine derbies, leading United to four wins and three draws, but the financial landscape in this corner of South Yorkshire has changed dramatically since the two clubs last met in February 2012.
Wilder, who led United to the League One title last season, has based his transfer strategy on acquiring young, talented but relatively cheap players with the potential to improve. Carvahal, the Wednesday manager, has the luxury of keeping a near £10m centre-forward - Jordan Rhodes - on the bench.
“Chris has got a good down to earth bunch of people around him,” Warnock, who met Wilder when United visited Wales earlier this term, says. “He’s got a good set of people around the place too and, trust me, that counts for a lot. In fairness, when I met the Wednesday boys recently, they were good people too. But, speaking about United, Chris has tapped into what the club is all about and you can see they all fight for each other.”
Warnock steered United into the Premier League towards the end of his eight year reign. His team, which included the likes of Chris Morgan, Paddy Kenny and Rob Kozluk, completed the league double over Wednesday during their 2005/06 promotion winning campaign.
“The build-up to the match will remind people what they’ve been missing,” Warnock says. “You thrive on everything that happens in the week; the expectancy, the tension and the excitement, even though you know what is at stake. Really, this game is up there with the very best there is.”