Sheffield United: Manager Chris Wilder reveals simple message he will give his side before they face Wednesday in Sheffield Derby
Tomorrow, when the warning buzzer sounds to summon them out of the dressing room, Chris Wilder is planning a brief address to his team.
"Enjoy it," he will remind them before their battle with Sheffield Wednesday. "Win and express yourselves."
Because, according to Sheffield United's manager, the these three things are inextricably linked.
"If you're happy," he says, "You're more likely to perform, no matter what your profession is. Football isn't different to any other walk of life which is why we want happy people."
It seems strange, as we discuss the derby inside a spartanly furnished office at United's Steelphalt Academy, to hear Wilder speaking in these terms. Steel City skirmishes are all about pressure. Both psychological and physical. Particularly, like the 51-year-old, when you grew up supporting the club you will lead into battle and is vying, not only for local bragging rights, but also first place in the Championship table.
Still, as he reclines in his chair and shares jokes with colleagues as the pass by the open door, Wilder looks anything but stressed. Behind the smile, his emotions might be churning. But he radiates an aura of excitement and determination rather than paralysing fear.
Given the way they go about their business and attack-minded style, it is important United's players also divorce themselves from the hullabaloo and hyperbole surrounding the biggest event on the region's sporting calendar.Â
"I'd like to think people enjoy watching us play," Wilder says. "I'd like to think we're a good group to be a part of and that it's enjoyable to be a part of as well.
"We've got a preferred way of playing, obviously we're flexible within that, but the basic principles don't change whatever the situation. There's no great surprise to how we try and do things. If you're committed to it, though, then that's not a weakness."
Wednesday, as Wilder acknowledges, do not need to plant spies in the Shirecliffe undergrowth to discover how United will play. Indeed, his opposite number Jos Luhukay can probably already name their starting eleven, so consistent are Wilder's selections and tactical templates.
Yet, as their position in the table demonstrates, knowing United is one thing. Stopping them is something else. So how has Wilder cultivated the solidarity, which allows his squad to impose its will on opponents, behind the scenes at Bramall Lane? The answer, he explains, is by encouraging freedom of expression and a sense of collective responsibility.
"You need to be strong and brave to commit to what we do. We don't change our principles and that meansÂ you've got to have a strong character. We've got those here, we like to think, and that comes down to the individuals involved.
"If you've got good, intelligent footballers with the right attitude, then it makes sense to encourage them to show that. Which is why we don't criticise people for trying stuff and getting into good positions; even if it doesn't come off."
United demonstrated just how powerful this approach can be when, 14 months ago, they recorded a 4-2 victory over Wednesday away from home. Mark Duffy's strike, after the hosts had recovered from two goals down, not only turned the tide of the contest. It also, as he danced his way through before beating Kieren Westwood, highlighted the importance of invention, inspiration and unshakeable self-belief.Â
"Clearly, there has to be a structure and a plan to what you do," Wilder continues. "There is here, we work hard on that. But we also allow them to make decisions out there on the pitch. We trust them, and they know it, to do that."
The United supporters, Wilder insists, have helped this process too.
"One of the things I'm most proud of is what it's like on a matchday here. How the fans have got right behind the boys and bought into what we're trying to do.
"Listen, we wouldn't be able to do it this way if people were worried about getting on the ball because they thought the crowd was after them. I've never even thought there was a possibility of that in all the time I've been here. When a club like our club is all together, it makes it a real force. When everyone wants the same thing, when everybody is encouraging each other because they all want the same thing."
What United want, more than anything else right now, is to beat their arch-rivals. Last season's corresponding fixture, following the euphoria of Hillsborough, proved to be a test of patience as the visitors set up to frustrate before releasing the shackles during the closing stages. When the final whistle blew, the match remained goalless. United were frustrated and Wednesday, after being reduced to 10 men following Glenn Looven's sending-off, celebrated in front of the travelling fans.
"Everybody knows what it means to people, everyone knows what it's about," Wilder says. "But that's part and parcel of living in the city and being brought up as we are. Those are the things, togetherness and attitude, that we are all about."
FOR LEG ON LEFT HAND SIDE OF THE SPREAD:
PUT A PICTURE OF JAMES SHIELD ABOVE THIS.
Welcome Sheffield United fans, and Sheffield Wednesday followers who just can't help themselves, to our preview of tomorrow's derby, writes James Shield. From, in this half of the pull-out at least, a Bramall Lane perspective.
It promises to be another no-holds-barred, absolutely compelling affair, between two of the best supported clubs in England. Neighbours who share little in common other than geography and passionate devotion to their teams.
Forget the mass media's obsession with the so-called 'Big Five'. Ignore the fact some folk, hoodwinked by its hype, think life does not exist beyond the Premier League. This is one of the most significant, if not THE most, significant and important matches in the country. And not, for fear of stating the bleeding obvious, it means so much to so many people.
London might have the sheer weight of numbers, Liverpool the romanticism and Manchester two of the richest sides in the world. But none of them, no matter how much the money men and spin doctors might pretend otherwise, possess Sheffield's footballing history. After all this city, our city, is the cradle of the modern game.
Bramall Lane, where the latest installment of this great sporting saga will take place, is the oldest major stadium still hosting professional matches in the world. It staged the first floodlit fixture and also the final of the first tournament - the Youdan Cup - between Norfolk and Hallam - with the latter's ground, located only a short drive away, being recognised as the oldest on the planet. Their biggest rivals, Sheffield FC, are the oldest on earth. Oh, and in 1858, the 'Sheffield Rules' were devised. For those who don't know, these introduced concepts like corners, throw-ins and free-kicks.
Like United, Wednesday are also woven into the fabric of the beautiful game. The two boast five championships between them with the latter laying claim to four. (Although, as those of a red and white persuasion will gladly point out, their record in meetings between the two is superior). A combined total of seven FA Cups also reflects their status and standing. Even though the last came 83 years ago.
Despite all this, (and countless other stats and facts I don't have room the mention), Sheffield's contribution to football is still routinely overlooked. It is a shameful reflection on the state of society; how people can be hypnotised by glitz, PR machines and, unfortunately for both United and Wednesday in recent times, sustained top-flight success.
Of course, the 34,000 or so set to file through the turnstiles have reason to wonder why neither has filled their true potential of late. But those arguments will be set aside for the next 48 hours or so. Because, make no mistake, victory is all that counts. In, given its context, the nation's most consequential contest.
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PUT A PICTURE OF BILLY SHARP ON THIS.
Barring injury, illness or a surprise change of system, Billy Sharp will lead Sheffield United into battle against Sheffield Wednesday tomorrow night.
Eleven goals in 15 appearances, five of which have come in his last five games, should ensure the 32-year-old's name is one of the first on Chris Wilder's team sheet ahead of the meeting with Jos Luhukay's side.
Yet nine months ago, when Wednesday last visited Bramall Lane, Sharp spent the evening watching from the bench. It was a controversial call and, as Wilder later acknowledged, a potentially costly one too as the match ended in stalemate. He is unlikely, given his captain's performances and presence, to make the same mistake again.
"You know what you get from Billy," Wilder replies, responding to a question about Sharp's qualities. "This is his club, he cares for it and he knows it comes first before any individual. That's what he puts across in the dressing room."
Sharp, like his manager, is a United supporter and so Steel City derbies are more than just a game. They might say all the right things, act with professionalism and talk about the long view. But, behind the masks, the passion of the terraces burns.
Harnessing this emotion could hold the key to success for United when they face opponents with a huge point to prove. It might have delighted the majority of their followers but, after being heavily beaten by Norwich City last weekend, Wednesday will travel to Bramall Lane smarting. And, as the hosts' players and staff will privately acknowledge, that makes them dangerous.
Despite his record since turning professional - he hits the target every 2.3 games - Sharp enters this fixture searching for his first derby goal in United colours after two previous spells at the club. He missed September's victory at Hillsborough through injury although, given a shortage of centre-forwards, Wilder selected him as a substitute.
"Every season, people write Bill off but we know what he's all about here," Wilder continues. "The way he looks after himself if an example and, I think it's fair to say, he's taking even more care of that now. You're seeing the benefit of the work he did over summer right now. You have to do that, the stuff away from the lights, and when you combine it with his experience, that's why he's doing what he is."
"Billy and a few of the other senior boys, they look after the group in the changing room," he adds. "They tell anyone who comes in what is expected of them by the rest of the group and how we do things here. They've got that attitude."Â
LAST SEASON'S DERBY DATES:
Sunday 24th September 2017: Sheffield Wednesday 2-4 Sheffield United.Â
Wednesday: Westwood, Hunt, Lees, van Aken, Reach, Lee, Bannan, Wallace (Butterfield 78), Jones (Joao 45), Hooper, Fletcher (Rhodes 68). Not used: Wildsmith, Pudil, Palmer, Nuhiu.
United: Blackman, O'Connell, Carter-Vickers, Wright (Duffy 63), Fleck, Baldock, Stevens, Coutts, Basham, Clarke, Brooks (Lundstram 85). Not used: Moore, Lafferty, Evans, Sharp, Carruthers.
Goals: Fleck (3), Clarke (15,77), Hooper (45), Joao (65), Duffy (67).
Friday 12th January 2018: Sheffield United 0-0 Sheffield Wednesday.
United: Moore, Basham, O'Connell, Stearman, Lundstram, Stevens, Baldock, Fleck, Duffy, Donaldson (Wilson 66), Clarke. Not used: Blackman, Lafferty, Sharp, L Evans, Wright, Leonard.
Wednesday: Wildsmith, Venancio, Loovens, Pudil, Fox, Palmer, Reach, Wallace (Clare 89), Jones, Rhodes (Boyd 70), Joao (Nuhiu 82). Not used: Dawson, Matias, Thorniley, Butterfield.
Sent-off: Loovens (64)