Loyal but not sentimental. I know an inspirational former Sheffield United skipper who particularly likes Chris Wilder’s own description of his management style. And that fine balance, pointed out to me by David Holdsworth, is starting to kick in.
There’s a time and place for managers to criticise players publicly. And from what I’ve seen over the years it’s more effective when they’re winning than losing. That’s when the message is more readily accepted; when there’s no danger of anyone feeling they’ve been made a scapegoat.
Then again, only the match officials really got it wrong at Middlesbrough where effectively United lost a match they “drew.” At Neil Warnock’s Cardiff on Tuesday - beaten 2-0 - the difference, admitted the boss, was being second best in both boxes. That’s different.
It was a defence of his players, minus the sentiment. So beware the following, delivered in victory last week.
Maybe a low-key affair (which barely exists in Wilder’s vocabulary) but there was no better demonstration of temper timing than after United’s reserve team, with all eleven players changed, beat Walsall 3-2 in the Carabao Cup. Incredibly, this meant that, including friendlies, the Blades had won 16 matches in a row stretching back to last season’s title triumph.
But Wilder, his voice hoarse from shouting, rounded on players generally for not seizing their opportunities as convincingly as he had demanded and issued a verbal kick up the rear to one in particular, Caolan Lavery.
It raised a few eyebrows and may have seemed a tad harsh. But there can be no doubt it was calculated for effect because, let’s think about this, if the Blades boss didn’t reckon the former Sheffield Wednesday striker – a talent that first came to the fore in the Championship – was capable of much better he’d have kept quiet. And that, in its own way, would have been more damning.
Besides, the barb came as a bounce-on reaction to Ched Evans’ impact in his first playing appearance at Bramall Lane for more than five years. Evans did what Lavery didn’t, worry and pester the Walsall back line, effectively score a goal (though technically an own goal) and turn the game - to leapfrog Lavery in the competition for front places.
Don’t be surprised if bench man Evans, thrusting from there, now starts against Barnsley on Saturday.
And here’s where the sentiment, or lack of, comes in. You could have been forgiven for thinking that Wilder and Billy Sharp were best buddies in the ecstatic, hugging celebrations that followed the League One Championship. But, from what I hear, the boss played hard ball over his skipper’s richly deserved new contract in the summer and, much as they respect each other hugely, it’s a business relationship that keeps Billy under pressure on the field as well.
Finally, a reality check. Two points more than at this stage last season (and two more than Aston Villa currently).
Yes, it’s an even tougher challenge, but we all know what happened after that...