Sheffield United: Blades promotion push exposes past flaws in Aston Villa’s transfer policy but Chris Wilder remains wary of the opposition’s threat
Yesterday morning, as he held court on the terrace of the Steelphalt Academy, Chris Wilder glanced over his shoulder and urged the journalists in attendance to peer through a nearby window.
There, behind one of the towering panes of glass which dominate the walls of Sheffield United's training complex, sat two senior players deep in conversation with his assistant Alan Knill, who was guiding them through some footage on a giant video screen.
It was evidence, despite their seemingly off-the-cuff tactics and supposedly chaotic system, of the preparation Wilder and his staff put into games. Including, as images of Aston Villa's stars flashed across the VDU, tomorrow night's meeting with Dean Smith's side.
No matter what the result, whether they win, lose or draw against the former European champions, United will finish the match above their latest opponents in the table and in the thick of the promotion battle. But rather than shout it from the roof tops, instead of emphasing how his team is out-performing one of English football's most iconic names, Wilder preferred to preach the importance of humility as the media shivered in the cold.
"That's always been in me as a player and, going back to the club as a whole, the successful sides have never had that feeling over anyone else," he said.
"Possibly the worst periods have happened when there has been that arrogance. Our upbringing, as players and staff, we always keep our feet on the ground. We know we've got to work hard for anything we get. That's never going to change."
Despite competing as equals in the same division, the difference in methodologies employed by the two clubs could not be more stark. Whereas Villa have focused on expensive top-flight talent since being relegated three years ago, United's march from third-tier under-achievers to Premier League hopefuls has been fuelled by previously unheralded names.
"It's a drive, from Monday to Friday, and then during the games," Wilder continued. "Recruitment has been a big thing. We've got not just young hungry players, but players who still feel as if they've got something to prove. I wouldn't say people have underachieved but there's been some, like Couttsy (Paul Coutts) and John Fleck, who maybe needed to kick-start their careers."
Following Smith's appointment in October, Villa's approach will probably change. Like Wilder, the former Brentford and Walsall chief has built his reputation on creating cohesive units. And, like Wilder, he is now in charge of the team he supported as a youngster. The job is personal as well professional.
"I think it's difficult when you change a manager mid-season," the United manager said. "But they've still got an opportunity to push and they've still got good players. There's been a change of manager and a change of ideas. One window, for Dean, is not enough for him to really stamp his mark on it. But he will do. Because he's more about teams than individuals."
"It doesn't give you any leeway, being in charge of our clubs," Wilder added. "At times, you get less because you're that accessible people will discuss everything with you. 'How come the bus is late?' 'How come the price of a pint has gone up?' It's not my fault but, to be honest, neither of us would have it any other way."
United, three points behind leaders Norwich City and second-placed Leeds, will climb to first if they repeat September's victory over Villa at Bramall Lane. Then, during the dying embers of new Sheffield Wednesday manager Steve Bruce's reign, the visitors cut a dishevelled looking bunch en route to a 4-1 defeat. Five months on, despite some indifferent results of late, they appear a much more formidable proposition.
Although Villa are ninth, which given their financial outlay suggests a lack of strategic thinking and flawed transfer policy, Smith still inherited plenty of accomplished options from his immediate predecessor. Tammy Abraham, on loan from Chelsea, is vying to become the league's most prolific marksman with United's Billy Sharp and could be joined by Jonathan Kodjia and Albert Adomah in a fearsome looking attack.
Asked if the presence of Abraham and Sharp, who have scored 19 goals apiece, will influence how the fixture unfolds, Wilder replied: "It will be a bit of both, attack and defence. We'll have opportunities to get on the ball and dominate possession. They will feel the same way too.
"I know we've got weaknesses that other teams will try and exploit. The same as them. Both teams will go for a win. I don't think their managers, their players and more importantly their supporters will accept them sitting on the edge of the box playing counter-attacking football. I think it will be end to end. So possibly it could come down to who is more clinical in both boxes."