Sheffield United: Chris Wilder reveals what makes his team so special ahead of Arsenal clash
Three years ago, when he burst back through the doors which lead into Bramall Lane, Chris Wilder didn't like what he saw.
Sheffield United, the club he supported, played for and was now about to manage, had not only just sleepwalked through another third tier campaign. But even worse, after doing the rounds and renewing some old acquaintances, Wilder discovered five seasons of drift had eroded its sense of community behind the scenes.
"When we first came in," he remembered towards the end of last week, "There were seven or eight parts all working independently. And, to be perfectly honest, that wasn't for me."
Tomorrow, when Arsenal visit South Yorkshire for a Premier League fixture set to attract an audience of millions, the difference is almost tangible. So much so, in fact, that a crowd bored into a stupor by nine months of dour football is regarded as perhaps the most powerful weapon in United's armoury.
Speaking ahead of the meeting with Unai Emery's side, Wilder was asked to name the achievement he is most proud of since replacing Nigel Adkins at the helm in 2016. Promotion from League One at the first time of asking? Or ending United's long exile from the top-flight by masterminding their climb out of the Championship last term? The answer was neither. But, given his strength of feeling for the team he has followed since childhood, the one Wilder offered should not come as a surprise.
"The biggest thing, the best thing, is getting everyone back on board," he said. "Seeing the fans as they are, at one with the boys if you like, that's the bit that really stands out for me."
Cynics will dismiss Wilder's words as a PR exercise. A ploy designed to curry favour with those on the terraces where he used to stand. But after resuscitating from their state of semi-consciousness. he has no need to indulge in platitudinous exercises. The respect of supporters, after winning more than half of his games in charge of United, is absolutely guaranteed.
Although an intelligent recruitment strategy, focusing on realising previously unfulfilled potential, combined with an emphasis on attacking football have been cited as the catalysts for United's success, Wilder believes another ingredient must also be factored into the equation by those looking to explain their transformation. It is the backing of fans who, as his squad prepares to lock horns with last season's Europa League finalists, he has implored to raise their voices once again.
"I think it's important at every club," Wilder continued. "There needs to be that. When you don't have it there, it's very rare you are going to be successful. Success of course if relative. But the crowd relate to this team and the players because of how they go about their business. Of course there are opinions. But when this club has been at it's best, there's been a togetherness."
Wilder was referring to United's performances under his friend and mentor Dave Basset, when they completed a similar journey through the divisions. But changes in the financial landscape, the growing gulf in resources between the likes of Arsenal and the rest, mean their recent accomplishments are even more impressive. It speaks volumes that the Londoners, despite paying one of their substitutes around £350,000 a week, are described by some as being over-cautious spenders.
Unlike Mesut Ozil, the former Real Madrid midfielder who Emery may or may not be selected by the visitors this evening, the overwhelming majority of United's players started the careers in the lower reaches of the game. Those relatively humble backgrounds, Wilder suspects, means they are much closer to the fans than some of their top-flight counterparts.
"The players also relate to the crowd," he said. "I've been in changing rooms where players have slagged supporters off and I've been out and about when supporters have hammered players. I've never had that feeling, when players are saying 'sod that lot out there. We're in it ourselves.' It's happened before, when players go insular. But I've never felt that here. Never. Okay, people might have a moan up about individual performances or results. But these lads never leave themselves open for it. They leave everything out there."
With the likes of Patrick-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette among those at Emery's disposal, Wilder has placed United supporters at the heart of a strategy he hopes can deliver his squad's most eye-catching result of the campaign so far. Officials, who sanctioned the installation of a state-of-the-art lighting system over the summer, are set to showcase its capabilities ahead of kick-off to help crank-up the atmosphere. Although he backed the proposal when it was first mooted in April, Wilder used August's fixture with Leicester City to remind a touch of Hollywood style glamour, despite being desirable, is not required to bring the stadium to life.
"Certain games, it just goes to another level. The level of support we've received has been outstanding. I think that's because they've seen what we've achieved and how we've gone about it. It's been incredible at Bramall Lane. Obviously away, it takes care of itself. But at home, it's really important. There was a period in the Leicester game, just after we equalised, when it went to another level. No disrespect, this isn't a League One game.
"We want to show what we're about as a team and the supporters will want to show what Sheffield United are like as a football club to the public."
United have taken nine points from their opening eight matches and, even though they were eventually beaten, Wilder predicted a repeat of last month's display against Liverpool can see them acquire three more.
"It's a competitive game," he said. "However we win the game, that's what we want to do. The Liverpool game, we had to get the balance right. Yet again, another club comes to town with a fantastic history that is looking to challenge at the top end of the division. In terms of the atmosphere, that's something we can't determine. But I'm 100 per cent positive our supporters will be behind us."
United entered the international break ranked 13th in the table following a draw with Watford. Arsenal climbed to third after a David Luiz header proved enough to overcome AFC Bournemouth.
"We've got to keep picking up points," Wilder, who could hand striker and captain Billy Sharp his first start of the season, said. "We were a touch disappointed we didn't pick up more against Watford. When I reflected on that, it was tough for our front boys when they just sat in and you heard the comments from there afterwards. I do think we are a touch light in terms of points. But you get what you deserve. I'm not looking at May, I'm looking at the next run of games."