Chris Wilder's emotional message to Blades fans as world watches on
Moments before they leave their changing area and stride out onto the pitch, Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder will urge his players to pause for a moment and remember the thousands of fans who would also have travelled to Aston Villa but have been prevented from doing so because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The first Premier League match to be staged since the virus reached these shores in March is a landmark moment for the domestic game. But, taking place behind closed doors because social distancing measures are still in effect, it also threatens to be a surreal experience.
“The connection has been brilliant, between us and our supporters,” Wilder said. “They’ve given us a huge boost home and away right the way through and the lads have deserved that because of their performances.
“So although it’s disappointing we’re not going to have them with us, that’s something we’ve just got to get on with. But don’t think for one minute we’ll be forgetting them because we won’t. There’s going to be a time when we’re all back in the grounds together and we want to be in a good place when that happens.
“The lads have got to do it for themselves, their team mates and the club. But they’ll also still be going out there and trying to do it for the fans, because we know they’re watching.”
At first glance, given the strength of the relationship between United and their following, Wilder’s side appear to be the top-flight team most inconvenienced by the ban on crowds. Seventh in the table and knowing a win at Villa Park will lift them to fifth with nine fixtures remaining, the 52-year-old makes no attempt to disguise the fact he would rather his charges were performing inside packed stadia.
However, as they chase a place in Europe, United are not lacking motivation. And strangely, given the significance of the occasion, the eyes of the world will still be watching despite the empty stands.
“It’s not just the first one back for us, it’s the first game back for everyone as it were,” Wilder said, ahead of the 6pm kick-off. “Before all this, we might have been sixth or seventh on Match of the Day whereas now we’re going first and it’s live on Sky Sports”
Steve Sylvester, the renowned sports psychologist, told The Star last month how United can use the hardships suffered by those in the wider community to produce displays of even greater intensity than the ones they delivered before lockdown.
Wilder, who warned Villa’s position in the relegation zone makes them dangerous opponents, echoed that sentiment.
“The players have got their own individual ambitions, as everyone who talks about where they have come from knows,” he said. “They’ve come a long way in a short space of time and they’ve all realised how good this division is and that they want to be a part of it going forward.
“But we’ll never forget our fans either. Never. They’ll always be in our minds.”