Sheffield United: Chris Wilder cracks a joke at his own expense as, four months after appearing to question his own futureÂ following a match against Bristol City, he prepares to return to Ashton Gate
Convivial rather than confrontational, cheerful and upbeat, Chris Wilder's mood could not have contrasted more sharply to four months ago when he last discussed a match against Bristol City.
Back then, as civil war waged in Bramall Lane's boardroom, the Sheffield United manager found himself wondering whether he could carry on in position unless the politicking stopped and people focused on football.
Nearly 19 weeks later, 48 hours before his team returns to Ashton Gate, Wilder's demeanor was different. Very different in fact.
"When the window finished, are we in a better position than before it? Yes. Are we in a better positionÂ than at the end of last season? Yes. That doesn't mean we are a better team. We've got to go out and proveÂ it. But talent wise and competition wise, I think we've moved it forward. It's amazing how the arrival of five or so new players has driven everyone on."
Of course, the issues which caused Wilder so much consternation have not entirely gone away. Kevin McCabe and HRH Prince Abdullah Bin Mosaad Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, United's two co-owners, are still locked in litigation and vying for sole-control. But having addressed many of his concerns, by sanctioning a series of new long-term contracts and more competitive budget, the 50-year-old now finds himself in a much better place to when, after last season's corresponding fixture, resignation appeared a real possibility. It was telling, speaking before training earlier today, that Wilder even cracked a joke at his own expense.
"I do get emotional every now and then you know," he smiled, remembering how the travelling support urged him to stay following the final whistle. "A couple of films get me going, definitely. Which ones? Scum, Snatch, ones like those. They really do it for me."Â
"It was a tough period for us all because it was coming to the end of a season which was great in manyÂ ways but didn't have the finish we wanted," Wilder continued. "It was a difficult time for me personally but people who knew me understood I still had work to do here."
May's 3-2 victory over City, which saw United finish 10th in the table, marked the end of an encouraging return to the Championship following six years in League One. This time around, having climbed to third and chasing a fifth straight league win, Wilder's squad travels south viewed as genuine contenders instead of dark horses or also-rans. That shift in status confirms both the wisdom of the board's decision to placate their greatest asset and, following a productive transfer window, his own strategic acumen.
With Ben Woodburn, Oliver Norwood and Conor Washington among those to arrive before last month's loan deadline, Wilder's squad is now deeper and more experienced than the one which faced City on the final day of the previous campaign. Whether or not Lee Johnson can say the same thing, after losing Bobby Reid and Aiden Flint during the close season, remains open to debate. But, thanks to the backing of owner Stephen Lansdown, he has been able to process deals for the likes of Tomas Kalas, Andreas Weimann and Adam Webster. Wilder knows sixth-placed City pose a serious threat.
"The finale epitomised what we were all about as a group I thought," he said. "Give them, City, credit because it did them too. We were 3-0 up and they could have gone out the back door but they didn't. They came back. "I think there are lots of similarities between the clubs. Okay, we play different ways and their recruitment isÂ possibly different to our recruitment. But there's lots of similarities. Their staff want to win and we want toÂ win as well."
United's hopes of continuing their winning run received a boost when all of their players selected for international duty returned, in Wilder's words, "fit, healthy and available for selection." That means Wilder, who also confirmed Leon Clarke has recovered from injury, could name the same starting eleven which beat Aston Villa 4-1 before the break. That is not a luxury Johnson is likely to be afforded after details emerged of an "unfortunate incident" at City's training ground. One member of their squad has been taken to hospital for a scan although, predictably, Wilder's counterpart refused to divulge the identity of the individual concerned. He did confirm, however, that, defender Nathan Baker and midfielder Jens Hegeler could return against United.
"It's great for these lads, going away with their countries," Wilder said. "It's brilliant for the education, their experience and I'm delighted for them and proud."