How an explosive atmosphere and angry mob in Istanbul convinced Chris Wilder that Sheffield United are on the right path
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February’s Istanbul derby, between Fenerbahce and Galatasaray, did not disappoint. There were two red cards, two controversial penalties and an attempted invasion of the directors box as home fans, angered by the sight of the visitors claiming their first away win over Fenerbahce for two decades, made their displeasure known. The interlopers, according to one of Wilder’s travelling companions, were physically repelled by members of the 28 time Turkish champions’ board.
But as chaos unfolded around him, a wry smile spread across the United manager’s face. After soaking-up the atmosphere, observing how both sets of players had performed in such a febrile environment, Wilder departed the Sukru Saracoglu Stadium convinced that criticism of his methods following a recent United fixture had been misguided, unfounded and, not to put too fine a point on it, utter nonsense.
“I went to watch Fenerbahce versus Galatasaray not so long back,” he remembered on Monday morning. “All the best, for the boys who are a little bit soft out there, dealing with that game.
“That was an experience. So yeah, it’s a tough environment in our dressing room.
“I’m the biggest supporter of our boys. I signed them. I brought them in to improve and go forward.
“When there’s a time that something needs to be said, don’t worry, it’s said.”
Five months before watching goals from Ryan Donk, Radamel Falco and Henry Onyekuru propel Fatih Terim’s side to a famous victory, Wilder had been castigated by sections of the British media for his comments following United’s defeat by Liverpool. After witnessing an error by Dean Henderson gift the Premier League leaders victory, the 52-year-old refused to shield his young goalkeeper from criticism. Some felt he had broken the sacred rule of criticising a footballer in public. Wilder’s conduct was vindicated by Henderson’s response - he kept a clean sheet in each of his next two outings - but that did not stop the United chief from coming under scrutiny from those who believed they understood the player’s psyche better than him.
“You pick your times with modern day professionals,” Wilder admitted during an interview with a domestic rights holder. “This is a tough industry and the strong survive.
“They have to deal with going into backyards of forty to fifty to sixty thousand people all after them. And if they want to improve and move their career on to European level and international football, to these European countries where they (the fans) are all after you, then you have to handle that and be tough.”
United were seventh in the table before the fixture calendar was suspended due to coronavirus. Five points behind fourth-placed Chelsea having played a match less than Frank Lampard’s side, Wilder’s decision to surround himself with players of character as well as calibre has already paid off.
“Eight times out of 10, when I go into the changing room to say something, it’s already been said by the other players,” he continued. “They will already have sorted a problem out.
“That goes back to having a professional and a caring changing room that we are all trying to get.”
When competition eventually resumes, Wilder hopes the focus, determination and comradeship which has also seen them reach the FA Cup quarter-finals will pay off.
Captain Billy Sharp and Henderson himself, who is now on the verge of winning his first England cap, have spoken in the past about how they appreciate Wilder’s frankness and stressed the role it has played in transforming the fortunes of a club which, when he was appointed four years ago, had just finished mid-table in League One.
“That’s the way it is, it’s black and white,” Wilder said. “They know where they stand. I don’t hear many complaints and, if there are any, they know where the office is and where to knock.
“But look at the performances and the standards these lads have set.”
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