Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder talks about Europe
After spending much of the past week trying to avoid the subject, Chris Wilder was finally prepared to talk about Europe.
Not Brexit. Although given Sheffield United’s results, you wouldn’t bet against him sorting it. Rather, with his team ranked fifth in the Premier League table, the possibility of qualifying for the Champions or Europa leagues.
“Europe? Yes, we might go there,” he smiled, when the subject was raised yesterday. “On an end of season trip. Probably Magaluf. That’s one for the older generation, you used to see 20 or so clubs all out there at the end of May.”
Although he will not thank anyone for pointing it out - the United manager has gone to great lengths of late to try and dampen expectations - the fact Wilder even finds himself joking about their odds of a top five finish is a measure of the remarkable progress his players have made since being promoted last term.
And despite his public utterances to the contrary, one suspects the 52-year-old and his coaching staff are privately determined to try and make the impossible happen. Even though, given United’s financial resources and top-flight inexperience, it remains a long shot.
If they overcome Watford on Boxing Day, United will face a similar line of questioning again.
On paper, with the visitors making the journey north in 20th place, it appears a relatively routine assignment. In practice, noting how the Hertfordshire outfit have been rejuvenated following Nigel Pearson’s appointment, Wilder is convinced it will prove anything but.
Certainly, he is expecting United’s latest opponents to pose a very different test to the one, under Pearson’s predecessor Quique Sanchez Flores, they presented during October’s stalemate at Vicarage Road.
“Watford, down there, played like an away side and played on the counter,” Wilder said. “They sat eight men behind the ball and we couldn’t find that pass to open them up.
“When a new manager comes in, you are always looking for that lift and Nigel has given them that. Nigel is honest and hard-working and I’m sure his team will mirror that.”
Watford have drawn with Crystal Palace, lost to Liverpool and beaten Manchester United since unveiling Pearson, a former Sheffield Wednesday captain, earlier this month.
The decision to hand him the reins was greeted with surprise by some observers. But Wilder, speaking at United’s pre-match media briefing, made it clear he is not among them.
“We would have been wary of Watford anyway,” Wilder said. “But he’s known in these parts. A fantastic captain for Sheffield Wednesday and an excellent coach.
“He’s a knowledgeable guy and his organisation of the team is always spot on.”
“I thought they were quite unfortunate at Liverpool,” he continued. “And then they got their reward for a positive performance against Manchester United.
“Nigel, being an ex-Sheffield Wednesday captain and living in the area, he’ll definitely want to nail us and beat the old enemy.
“I don’t know, with just coming into the Premier League recently, if I really should be commenting on stuff like this. But if you are asking for my opinion, then I think it’s a really sensible appointment.”
The return of Troy Deeney, their captain and talisman, from injury has also raised Watford’s hopes of avoiding relegation. The centre-forward was on target during the win over United’s namesakes from the North-West.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence, the upturn and Troy coming back either,” Wilder said. “Look at the experience they have got, they were FA Cup finalists last year.
“In this division, momentum can change so quickly. They had momentum going forward last year.”
Wilder’s decision to highlight how Watford’s fortunes have changed since reaching May’s showpiece at Wembley was probably no accident. United will enter the fixture searching for their fourth straight win in the competition, after overcoming Norwich City, Aston Villa and Brighton and Hove Albion. But they also face reigning champions Manchester City and leaders Liverpool over the Christmas and New Year period.
“I can only say the things about the crowd, that I keep banging on to the players about, and that’s they’ve got to be consistent,” Wilder said. “Every game, every point, we need that backing.
“There might be one or two who think ‘this is going to be a comfortable afternoon.’ There was a bit of that in the Championship.
“But most won’t. It wasn’t like that in the Championship and it certainly isn’t like that in the Premier League.”