Hold back a little on the euphoria of a 3-1 win at Reading. The reality is that Sheffield United have to be playing at or near their maximum to beat most teams in the Championship.
That’s what caused the white hot eruption from Mount Wilder after last Friday’s surprise defeat at Hull.
Twenty four hours later, I saw Aston Villa run ragged at times by the other team in Sheffield and still emerge victorious. Villa’s quality papered over their cracks.
Just as it had done at Bramall Lane when they were also largely outplayed – at the end of a transfer window during which the Blades boss had masked the frustration of his financial handicap.
United have no such luxury or room for error. The reason why this remains and, I think, will continue to be a hugely creditable season is that most of the time they have indeed been at or near the maximum. But United can’t afford to fall short, as they did at the KCom Stadium. The secret of Chris Wilder’s management has been keeping the side at the highest possible pitch.
It is also his challenge for the rest of the season. Twelve games left and I doubt, if you were manager, you’d be swapping this run-in. Only two of United’s remaining opponents (Cardiff and Fulham) are currently above their sixth place in the table. It means the term “winnable game” will be trotted out on a regular basis. But I wonder if we should redefine it.
Winnable means capable of being won. It doesn’t mean “should be won”, which most of us imply when we say it. In truth, the Blades “shouldn’t win” against most of their remaining opponents – and, indeed, the majority of the division.
There is only one truly accurate measure of achievement and that is budget and expenditure. That’s why, when managers of the season are nominated, I firmly believe we too often overlook that yardstick and pick the obvious. Last season, for instance, I’d have chosen between ex Blades boss Nigel Clough, for his Championship survival campaign with Burton, and Gary Bowyer, for somehow dragging bedraggled Blackpool out of League Two.
I’d have had Wilder in the top few but nowhere near those two, despite winning League One by a mile. That’s because United had a more than competitive budget for that level. This season is different. The Blades are known to be firmly entrenched in the bottom half of the Championship for outlay on the team. Whatever happens, this season is a resounding success.
Somehow get in the play-offs – even win through them – and Wilder should be right up there for manager of the season.
It follows that this 12-match run-in is not what it seems with expectations distorted by achievement against the odds. Maybe even the manager himself needs occasionally reminding of that. But while his scathing criticism post Hull was a mixture of characteristic bluntness and sheer frustration (board, take heed), it was also inspired shock therapy.
With no disrespect to Saturday’s visitors in Clough’s second-bottom Burton, this looks to be a rare exception as a game that should be won. Undeniably, United have given both themselves and their supporters the belief that they can knock teams over. That is a more accurate gauge than “winnable games” in the way we have come to mean it.
I think most fans have caught on to that, judging by their sustained support during a dig-out victory over Queens Park Rangers in the last home match. More of the same will be needed.