Chris Wilder reveals why Sheffield United's planning is more important now than ever ahead of taking on Jesse Lingard and West Ham
The threat of another Covid-19 outbreak and dangers posed by physical and mental fatigue within his injury hit squad were among the chief reasons why Chris Wilder told Sheffield United’s board of directors he disagreed with their decision not to make any new signings during the transfer window.
Speaking to the media before the deadline passed without incident at Bramall Lane, Wilder made no secret of fact he believes the club’s hierarchy made a mistake when it withdrew the offer of funding for reinforcements midway through last month.
Besides the tension likely to be caused by HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaz Al Saud’s public criticism of their recent recruitment record - something which is difficult to square with the owner’s insistence he wants Wilder to remain in charge no matter what next term - United’s coaching staff are also thought to be privately concerned about the effects of the workload being placed on some players in recent weeks.
One of Wilder’s confirmed loan targets - Manchester United and England midfielder Jesse Lingard - eventually joined West Ham when talks with agents acting on his behalf proved impossible to progress and is expected to feature for David Moyes’ side when United visit east London tomorrow.
Asked by The Star if news that Billy Sharp and Phil Jagielka had tested positive for the virus before December’s trip to Burnley had shaped his recruitment policy, Wilder attempted to strike a diplomatic tone - stopping short of denouncing United’s failure to bolster the options at his disposal but making his displeasure known.
“At any time, as hard as the experts work and are working here, you know you can have an outbreak at a football club,” Wilder replied, speaking earlier this month. “We had a mini-scare against Burnley, where we knew we were going to lose players and could potentially have lost a lot more.”
Reminding how loans were a driving force behind United’s promotions from League One and the Championship following his appointment in 2016, Wilder said: “You put your recommendations to the board. It’s not always the ones who play 38 games who are the most important. Kieran Dowell, Gary Madine and Scott Hogan - they all scored and played huge parts in getting us up. They keep the standard of the group high and keep the performances of the group honest.
“You have to cover all situations and eventualities, because I haven’t got a crystal ball. It wasn’t a straightforward decision but I’ll respect it, as I think people respect mine.”
Although United’s fitness issues have eased a little of late, Enda Stevens, who could return tomorrow evening, is understood to have aggravated a calf injury during a training session which had been hastily rearranged at short notice because of conditions at their Steelphalt Academy training complex. Coaching staff have consistently gone on record to praise the efforts of ground staff working at the site, particularly during recent cold snaps across the region. But with facilities there still lagging behind others within the competition, something which can partly be attributed to the speed of United’s ascent under Wilder, suspicions that Stevens’ recovery was hampered by poor infrastructure could cause further frustration behind the scenes.
Although Wilder’s pitch to Lingard was ridiculed by many at the time - some commentators and supporters alike questioning why he would want to join a team at the bottom of the table - talks between the 28-year-old and Wilder’s representatives are known to have reached an advanced stage before it became apparent they were effectively pointless. Sources in the North-West insist there was a genuine possibility that Lingard could have been lining up for United rather than West Ham at the London Stadium, with one of Moyes’ predecessors at Old Trafford believed to have successfully petitioned officials there to continue making a significant contribution towards the player’s wages. However, this has not been confirmed by United’s hierarchy, who appear to have pulled the plug on negotiations before Wilder’s side triumphed 2-1 there nearly three weeks ago.
On the day he began considering his response to Prince Abdullah’s statement, Wilder watched Lingard score twice on his debut for West Ham.
United finished the latest round of Premier League fixtures 12 points adrift of safety with 15 matches remaining after being narrowly beaten by Chelsea a week ago. Both George Baldock and Stevens missed the contest with hamstring and muscle complaints respectively, with Wilder once again naming a short-handed bench after electing not to fill the vacant slots with academy players. It was the ninth time since the meeting with Burnley that United have failed to select their full complement of substitutes.
“Mentally, I really don’t think people realise how tough this level is,” Wilder said. “Yes, we play less games than in the one below. But it still feels just as intense, more intense in fact, because of the sheer amount of work you have to put in. That goes on the training pitch and also tactically and technically.”
“From the players’ perspective, they just can not afford to switch off for a second and of course that’s tiring. That goes for the matches themselves, of course, because of the quality they are up against but also in the week when they have to be bang on it all the time because of the information they've got to take on board. If they switch off or lose concentration for a minute, in the Premier League, that’s it - you get punished. That’s a fact, which is why the mental side of things, the psychological aspect, is so important too.”