Sheffield United: '˜Scared of the big spenders? Nothing could be further from the truth'
It was portrayed as the first shot in the psychological war surrounding tomorrow's fixture at Bramall Lane.
A thinly-disguised attempt, torn straight from Jose Mourinho's playbook, to increase the heat on the opposition and make their lives as uncomfortable as possible.
But Chris Wilder's claim that Aston Villa have everything to lose and nothing to gain when they meet his Sheffield United team was more than a piece of Machiavellian cunning. Indeed, despite the glint in his eye during yesterday's pre-match media conference, the 50-year-old stressed he was simply talking facts.
"Apart from the obvious one and our other Yorkshire rivals, this game is right up there for me," Wilder said "I think it's proud for our supporters to watch their team in there fighting with the likes of Aston Villa because we're not talking about an ordinary Championship club here. But we'll go after them as we always do. Don't you worry about that."
Few fixtures highlight the financial disparity of the Championship better than United versus Villa. And few, given the fact they find themselves in the same division for a second successive season, provide a sharper reminder that pound notes are no guarantee of points. Steve Bruce has built his squad on multi-million pound signings thanks to their multi-billionaire owners. Yet they travel to South Yorkshire under pressure, under scrutiny and, after losing to Burton Albion three days ago, in desperate need of a result. The mood music surrounding United, who enter the meeting searching for a fourth straight league win, is markedly different to the doom-laden soundtrack in the Midlands, where Bruce admitted Villa's Carabao Cup exit made him feel "physically sick." Wilder's team, pieced together on a much more modest budget, are on the cusp of the play-offs and still basking in the glory of their irresistible performance against Bolton Wanderers last weekend.Â
Speaking immediately after that game, John Fleck described how United's squad are driven by a desire to prove transfer fees and wages are no gauge of ability. Given their difference in resources, the opportunity to heap further misery on Villa also appeals to the mischievous side of Wilder's nature. Hence, with very little prompting, his willingness to revisit the theme. "I don't think I'll ever let my players become arrogant or complacent and thing they've landed.That's our group mentality. There are a few clubs in the Championship like that and we're not one of them. We've got some good footballers who go out there and compete. They drive each other forward and we push them."
Wilder, speaking at Bramall Lane ahead of United's official photoshoot, will hope his players are in equally pugnacious mood against a Villa side facing a fresh wave of terrace discontent. Indeed, it is a measure of the expectancy surrounding Bruce's squad that despite being fourth in the table, questions are already being asked about both their promotion credentials and the 57-year-old's ability to deliver top-flight football. Wilder has no personal beef with his counterpart - "A great football bloke" - but as his seventh placed squad prepare for battle, he is understandably keen to pick at those wounds.Â "We can chip away at that but not on a personal level," Wilder acknowledged. "I've got a huge respect for Steve. As a young manager, he was a huge help to me and we trained at their place a couple of times when I was at Oxford and he was at Birmingham City. There's a huge amount of football to be played this season. He's experienced and he's got more promotions I think than anyone out of this division. They're probably the biggest club in the division and it's part and parcel of that."
United's interest in Scott Hogan provided another intriguing subplot to this game, before Northern Ireland international Conor Washington arrived on a permanent transfer. Washington, aged 26, accepted Wilder's invitation after Queens Parked Rangers agreed to terminate his contract following a frustrating spell in London. With doubts about Leon Clarke's availability, Wilder's need for reinforcements ahead of today's loan deadline was clear. Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick, who replaced Clarke midway through the visit to Greater Manchester, are poised to start against Villa, with Washington likely to be summoned from the bench during the later stages.
"We've got a couple of issues but we'll be keeping those under our hats," Wilder said. "Actually, I'm not a very good blagger and Leon is obviously one of those. But we'll give him the maximum amount of time to get ready and hopefully he'll be able to get out there."