Sheffield United: History suggests Chris Wilder’s theory about what will decide the race for automatic promotion is correct
It might sound strange but Chris Wilder has long suspected the ability to recover from disappointment will ultimately decide the outcome of this season's battle for top-flight football.
Of course, like his counterparts at Norwich City, Leeds and West Bromwich Albion, the Sheffield United manager does not plan to drop points between now and the end of the campaign.
But given the psychological and physical pressures associated with chasing a place in the Premier League, Wilder privately accepts it is unlikely any of the division's leading clubs will win all of their remaining games.
The 51-year-old's theory will be put to the test on Saturday afternoon, when his squad returns to action for the first time since last weekend's defeat by Bristol City. United, whose visit to Preston North End could go a long way towards deciding the fate of both teams this term, know another loss could see them fall five points behind second place with only six matches left to play.
But victory would, at the very least, keep them within touching distance of Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds after they edged United into third following a dramatic comeback against Millwall.
"They've shown that consistently in my time here, the ability to bounce back," Wilder said, as preparations for the trip to Deepdale began in earnest. "There were some really disappointed boys in the dressing room (after losing to City) but I'm sure they'll come roaring back. I'm sure they'll show a reaction because that's going to be vitally important."
An analysis of the previous 10 Championship seasons reveals why, even at this late stage, Wilder believes it would be a mistake to talk about "defining moments" or "critical" matches. Not once during that period has one of the two sides to gain automatic promotion won all of their final seven league fixtures.
Newcastle went close, securing 19 points from a possible 21 nine years ago. Another six, including Burnley and Middlesbrough in 2016, have gone unbeaten. But with 1.9 being the average number of points per game returned by either the eventual title winners or runners-up since 2009, history suggests Wilder, Bielsa and Albion caretaker James Shan will suffer more frustration between now and May 5.
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Their ability to do so could decide who goes straight-up and who enters the play-offs.
"You never accept defeat," Wilder said. "It's not something you ever want to be comfortable with and you don't want to see people laughing and joking after one either. But what you do want, because unfortunately set-backs are always going to happen in professional sport, is people who respond in the right way and get on with their jobs."
"You've got to take it on the chin, try and see what went wrong or what you can do better, then draw a line and move forward," he added. "Because the one thing you know in this division is that the next match is going to be just as tough as the one you've just been in. There's no days off."
With leaders Norwich enjoying a seven point cushion over United, it seems likely Wilder's men are now embroiled in a three way battle for second with Leeds and Albion in fourth. North End are 10th, but only two points behind Derby County in sixth.
"Everyone has something to go for," Wilder said. "Preston can still get in there (the play-offs) even though like us they had a knock back after being on a good run last time out."
United had gone 10 games unbeaten and kept seven back to back clean sheets before Andreas Weimann's hat-trick saw that run come to a shuddering half three days ago.
On a dramatic afternoon played out in front of 30,000 plus crowds at both Bramall Lane and Elland Road, goals from Billy Sharp and Scott Hogan twice edged United in front against Lee Johnson's men.
But after cancelling out both of those efforts, Weimann scored against during the closing stages. Forty-miles to the north, Leeds twice came from behind against their rivals from London before also pouncing late on.
"You've got to keep a cool head at all times, especially at times like this though," Wilder said. "That's crucial. We're only focusing on ourselves. Not what anyone else does."