Sheffield United: The one word Chris Wilder refused to utter as his team looks to reach the Premier League
Earlier this morning, when he arrived at Sheffield United's training complex to address the media, Chris Wilder was treated to a snap shot of what might await him in the Premier League.
The usual suspects were there, as they have been all season. But, squeezed into the common room which doubles as an interview suite, was another small army of largely unfamiliar faces. It was a sign, given one was covering the event for an overseas publication, that Wilder and his team are on the verge of becoming very big news.
What did not change however, as he searched for different ways to answer largely the same questions during countless interviews, was the 51-year-old's refusal to mention the word 'promotion'. Indeed, even though beating Ipswich Town could seal their return to the top-flight, United's manager spent the best part of an hour reminding it is still an 'if'.
"You can't escape things," Wilder said, responding to an inquiry about the sudden explosion of interest in his second-placed squad. "It's there isn't it. The coverage the Championship gets, especially at the top end, is right up there. Obviously there's the Big League and that's a fantastic competition. But so is our one too."
Wilder has been honing his powers of evasion for the past few weeks as United, barring a couple of false steps, closed in on a place among England's footballing elite. But this, with his team now potentially one win away from reaching its target, was the ultimate test of the 51-year-old's new-found skill. Particularly, as he was reminded on numerous occasions, United's penultimate contest of the season is at home against opponents already relegated to the third tier.
"There's fantastic excitement around the city, as you would expect in the red and white half," Wilder acknowledged. "We're looking at a full-house and season ticket sales, stuff like that, are going well.
"There's an obvious lift in excitement, especially connected to an important game. Every game in the Championship is important in my book, though. Every single one."
United enter Saturday's game three points ahead of Leeds in third after dispatching both Nottingham Forest and Hull City over the Bank Holiday weekend. But a vastly superior goal difference means the gap between themselves and Marcelo Bielsa's squad, who suffered back to back defeats, is effectively four.
Although United's recent form has left them in an enviable position, it was noticeable how Wilder used his latest pre-match briefing to talk-up Town's credentials. Despite being bottom of the table and searching for only their second victory since mid-January, Paul Lambert's side were described as "extremely talented" and showered with other forms of praise. If the visitors do cause an upset, Wilder is determined it will not be through complacency on his own players part.
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"For us to get a result, we have to play at our max," he reminded. "And that's not being disrespectful to the players. "They know they have to do it to get the results which have got them into this position. They've got to carry on doing that."
Inevitably, with Leeds losing to Wigan Athletic and Brentford over the Easter period, the spotlight has focused on how United have dealt with the psychological challenges of pushing for promotion compared to their rivals from West Yorkshire. The differences could not be more stark. While Bielsa, whose men face Aston Villa on Sunday oversees a notoriously taxing regime, Wilder, despite being equally demanding of his players, has also granted them plenty of time to escape the suffocating pressure. Recent results, coupled with a fitness record which means Billy Sharp is their only injury doubt, would suggest United's approach has been more successful.
"Yeah, we do, we enjoy ourselves," Wilder acknowledged. "It's a fantastic job and it doesn't always go according to plan. You have to take the rough with the smooth. I always tell them if we win 'go and enjoy yourselves' because they have to do a lot of things right during the week to get wins in this division.
"Obviously if there's a game Tuesday, it's a little bit different. But they are good professionals, with good attitudes."
"I've not really seen them," he continued, detailing United's schedule since facing Hull on Monday. "We came in for a recovery on Tuesday. After the game, there were no champagne corks popping or anything like that.
"And why would there be? They take their lead from me, I think. They understand where I'm coming from on things and there's others in there who think the same way as well."
Wilder, who could task former Town striker David McGoldrick with spearheading United's attack if Sharp fails a late fitness test, insisted his team is confident of achieving its ambitions before signing-off with a warning that nothing is decided yet.
Indeed, remembering how only a fortnight ago United were being accused of blowing their big chance after being held to a draw by Millwall, he reminded: “It’s already swung one way. It can easily, if we’re not absolutely bang on it, swing all the way back.”