Alan Biggs at Large: Failure to back Chris Wilder in January could jeopardise Sheffield United's golden chance of reaching the Premier League
Aston Villa, Sunderland, Bolton Wanderers. Sheffield United's festive fare neatly and symbolically laid out as an example of how football goes in cycles.
And a reminder of how the wheel needs a vigorous spin once it starts turning in your direction.
Lose that momentum and it’s hard to get it going again. Just ask the Blades’ next three opponents. All three are recent members of the Premier League. All three are struggling to get back there – and even, in one or two cases, fighting to stay put in the Championship.
While the ownership and style of these clubs cannot be compared to Bramall Lane, they are not too far apart in size, albeit that Villa are traditionally bigger and Sunderland historically capable of the biggest support.
What’s more relevant, considering football’s volatile nature, is that Sunderland exited the top flight only last season, Villa dropped in 2016 and Bolton were playing at the highest level until five years ago. If any of the three are to recapture the high ground this season then only Villa are in the running with the lottery of the play-offs looking their best hope.
That Sheffield United face these sides with expectations of keeping alive similar aspirations is evidence of the remarkable impact of Chris Wilder’s appointment just 18 months ago.
But the Blades, or more accurately the board, don’t have far to look for what’s required to take the club further. It took substantial investment to keep Villa (who host United on Saturday) in the Premier League for every campaign since its inception up to last season’s demise. Sunderland (at Bramall Lane on Boxing Day) have needed plenty of cash to keep bouncing back and forth of recent years, while Bolton (in town on December 30) are an example of the financial perils that can await from losing that status.
Of course, nobody, least of all Wilder, would want to see United following the apparently reckless path that triggered a fight for survival and various transfer embargoes. Good housekeeping and a well run club are prizes in themselves, whether fans appreciate them or not.
Equally, there comes a time when prudence and extracting maximum value from relatively minimal transfer outlay can only go so far. United may have reached that point ahead of the stick or twist month of the January window. Certain soundings suggest the funding might not be at the level many people hope or expect. We’ll see.
You can’t just magic money. But without lifting the bar on recruitment, I’d say not only would it be hard for Wilder’s team to keep themselves in the play-off frame; it would also be extremely tough to rekindle such a bid next season.
Once the newness and freshness of playing in a higher division wears off, and once opponents finally wise up to your successful ways, more difficult challenges present themselves. United must aim to take the opportunity while it is there, with great support from crowds pushing 30,000, and that takes as big a push off the field as the one that’s led the way on it.
And the fourth festive fixture? Away to Derby County, still outside the Premier League after a nine year exile. Examples wherever you look.