Sheffield Derby: How Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder set about ensuring his team reflected the values which made the city as a whole great
Chris Wilder tells The Star’s Sheffield United writer James Shield why he wants his team, and tonight's derby, to reflect the city as a whole.
Four months ago, only hours before Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday did battle at Bramall Lane, Chris Wilder attended a presentation inside the stadium's 1889 suite.
There were no tactics being discussed or players in the audience. No snippets of the opposition's set-pieces were being beamed onto the giant projector screen. Instead the purpose of his visit, when he could easily have been applying the finishing touches to his team's game plan, was to learn about the work of United's community foundation. Wilder's presence, given the event's unhelpful scheduling, confirmed the importance he places on football's obligations to society. And, as he acknowledges ahead of the return fixture at Hillsborough, ensuring the club he has played for and supported since childhood reflects the spirit of its home city.
"Absolutely, I want us to reflect the values of where we're from. It's an honest, hard-working city. It's not one for falling over, when it gets knocked down it picks itself back up again and it's definitely not one for cheating. It's a down to earth place and it's happy to get its hands dirty."
Although tonight's result could help shape the rest of United's season, their position in the Championship and method of travel confirms Wilder has already gone a long way towards achieving that aim. Having entered the weekend in second and unbeaten in six outings, his team are in the thick of a promotion race. But even more impressive, something the 51-year-old has pointedly refuses to downplay in recent weeks, is how it has got there. Combining enterprising play with intelligence, United's squad are standard bearers for a region built on innovation, graft and steel.
The Steel City’s shifting powerbase
As he looks ahead to the derby, surrounded by journalists inside an otherwise empty ground, Wilder also uses the opportunity to reflect on his three years in charge. It has been a memorable period in United's history, with a League One title triumph proving the catalyst for a shift in Sheffield's sporting powerbase although, he concedes, Steve Bruce's appointment has reinvigorated Wednesday and given them some of their old swagger back.
Strategies are discussed - "We won't change how we do things" - and so are Wilder's hopes for what he predicts will be a full-bloodied game: "I don't think they'll sit back like they have in the last two. I don't think that is Steve's way."
But the conversation takes its most interesting turn when Wilder considers the bigger picture, addresses its importance to the city and the challenges those set to be involved face.
"It has changed since I was a player," he says. "I remember going out in town and seeing Shez (John Sheridan) and John Newsome who is another pal of mine. Of course they played for Wednesday.
"There's always been that Saturday night bit between young boy supporters. I'm not trying to be confrontational about it. That's what happens, young men having rough and tumble on a Saturday night.
"But the other part has changed in the last five to 10 years, and I don't think the social media stuff has helped. We never used to get any hassle going out. The managers definitely never got any hassle going out. It happens in Glasgow, it happens in Liverpool, it happens in Manchester and it happens in London, that rough and tumble stuff.
"It's a passionate city but hopefully people behave because women and children will be going as well and this is for them too. This is a game for everyone."
No bigger game
It is, in Wilder's eyes, the biggest there is although Carlos Carvalhal and Jos Luhukay took a different view, with Bruce's immediate predecessor famously claiming he had been involved in more significant ones abroad.
"For us, 100 per cent, this is the top," Wilder says. "I said it last year. I didn't understand the last managers saying what they did.
"And I''m not saying that to have a pop. I'm saying it from the heart. Other cities shout about their derbies. Why shouldn't we shout about our derby. There might be bigger fan bases in Liverpool or Newcastle, but try telling people here those games are bigger. We'll have two teams going for a win, full tilt."
With Bruce now at the helm across the city, Wilder suspects this evening's contest will mark a return to the aggressive, all-action affairs of the past. It is something he welcomes, especially after Wednesday set-up to not to lose rather than win in their two visits to United since last term's corresponding fixture. Probably more befitting of the area too.
"Both clubs have produced some brilliant technical players over the years," Wilder continues. "Them and us.
"Shez, Chris Waddle, they didn't just stroll around a football pitch. And when we've had success, it's been the same, really talented players who put it all in and went all out."
Not bad for the Pub League
The 131st competitive meeting between these two clubs sees United return to Hillsborough for the first time since winning 4-2 there last season. Goals from John Fleck, Mark Duffy and a Leon Clarke brace confirmed their resurgence following a long spell in the third tier and, much to Wilder's obvious satisfaction at the time, forced Wednesday's supporters to drop the "Pub League" insult.
"It's been tough for our club over 10 to 15 years or so," he says. "Barring the odd play-off final and those runs to the cup semi-finals under Nigel (Clough), we've not really had a lot to shout about. We needed to address that and, hopefully, I think we have.
"When I first came in, I wanted there to be a connection with the supporters. And I wanted us to be competitive in the city as well. Begrudgingly, I think they accept that now."