Sheffield United: When a famous footballing hardman told Chris Wilder his team is on the right track
After completing his media duties following Tuesday's meeting with Stoke City, Chris Wilder made a beeline for Denis Smith, the visitors' legendary former player.
Deep in conversation and easily within earshot of the assembled journalists, the two men discussed both that night's events and Sheffield United's aims for the season. Smith, on co-commentary duty for a Staffordshire radio station, could be heard insisting they should include promotion as he revealed his admiration for Wilder's team.
Earning the respect of someone who became known as a hardman during football's most brutal eraÂ will have been scant consolation for United's manager after watching his team dominate but draw with their illustrious opponents. However, if he was in any doubt, Smith's admiration for their approach reassured Wilder that his squad is on the right path.Â
"I've told the lads I'm proud of them," he said ahead of Saturday's game against Wigan Athletic. "To go out there and take on some unbelievably powerful teams, to not be bothered about what's on the back of someone else's shirt or the badge on the front, they just keep on believing.
"If we continue to do that, if we keep showing the same attitude, then I'm sure we'll be okay."
Oliver Norwood, United's influential midfielder, elaborated on the theme as preparations for the meeting with Paul Cook's side continued yesterday. Although Athletic are expected to pose a different kind of test - they will arrive at Bramall Lane without an away win since August - Norwood confirmed Wilder's players will enter the fixture with exactly the same mentalityÂ which could, indeed should, have propelled them to victory in midweek.
"Names mean nothing, it's eleven versus eleven, names mean nothing to me," the Northern Ireland international said. "I've played against some of the best there is for my country.
"It's a Championship match, it's us against them, and that's the attitude we've got. The manager thinks like that but as a group, we also want to prove it no matter who we are up against. We want to prove that we are the better players.
"You saw it against Stoke, that eleven of our lads were better than their eleven. It was disappointing not to win the game but we'll keep our feet on the ground, keep working hard and looking forward to Wigan next time out."
Although United's tactics are unlikely to keep Cook guessing, Wilder is almost certain to stick with his preferred 3-5-2 formation, the 51-year-old hopes they will surprise the visitors in a potentially more damaging way. Despite creating 59 chances in their last four outings, United have scored only five goals. It is a problem Wilder acknowledges must be addressed, either on the training pitch or during the January transfer window.
"The manager said he can't ask much more from us, apart from being more clinical," Norwood continued. "
"The Championship this year is wide open. More than it has been for a while. No one team is going to run away with it.
"We have seen 13 team and I don't think any of those were better than us.Â I can say I look at those teams and think we are better than all them. I missed Middlesbrough so can't comment on that one.
"But since I have been here, we have been the dominant team in every game. We just have to keep doing what we are doing. That's work hard and take our chances when they come along."
Greater attention to detail us also required, as events in 48Â hours ago demonstrated. Yet, after picking apart the chain of events which culminated in Joe Allen's equaliser, Wilder, who had earlier seen Leon Clarke open his account for the season, took heart from the fact United are third in the Championship while considerable room for improvement remains.
"Peter Crouch has done what an experienced international, one who has spent most of his career in the top-flight, would do," Wilder, detailing the build-up to City's goal, said. "He's gone down, I don't think it was a free-kick, but there was slight contact right in front of the referee.
"Then, with him being six foot seven, we're worried about him at the back post and probably didn't line our wall up properly."
"The free-kick seemed to trickle in, which was frustrating," Norwood concurred. "As a team, maybe we didn't set up right. Maybe we thought he was going to stand one up for Peter Crouch at the back post. Maybe he caught us out by dinking one. We can do better."
With Athletic's Lee Evans ineligible for selection under the terms of his 'loan to buy' agreement, Norwood has been denied the opportunity to line-up against the player he was signed to replace.
"We've got a few doubts ourselves, a few knocks," Wilder said. "But we'll keep those to ourselves."