Sheffield United: This is what Chris Wilder thinks about Saturday’s crunch clash against fellow Premier League hopefuls West Bromwich Albion
It does not take a orator of Don King's prowess to sell Saturday evening's game.
Sheffield United versus West Bromwich Albion at The Hawthorns. Second meets fourth with barely a cigarette paper between them and only 13 matches of the season to play.
Still, after hearing the fixture described as a potential audition for Premier League football, Chris Wilder felt compelled to cut through the hyperbole. Yes, he conceded, the match is of the utmost importance. But so, he reminded, are the remaining dozen contests, which pit his team against the likes of Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham and another arch-rival Leeds.
"Listen, this is big because of the position we've put ourselves in," Wilder conceded. "But they're all big tests, they're all huge games and those just keep rolling on."
As United's manager reminded, nothing will be decided by the outcome of his team's meeting with Darren Moore's side. But it is difficult to escape the conclusion, given that leaders Norwich face a resurgent Bristol City while Bolton Wanderers visit third-placed Leeds, that we are approaching a pivotal weekend in the Championship calendar. Victory could see Wilder's men climb to the summit of the table. Defeat would stall their momentum and definitely see them overtaken by their latest opponents although, as the 51-year-old emphasised, West Brom are arguably under even greater pressure.
"I'm not trying to heap it on them but there is definite pressure on them to get out of the division," Wilder said, before dusting down one of his favourite golfing analogies. "They won't be happy staying in it; the players, the staff and especially the fans. They'll be looking to go up and they're big favourites to do that."
"On our part, we're in good nick and I'd rather be doing that than scrambling around for results," he continued. "We're not smacking it in the rough, hacking it out and then having to fire it in the hole from 200 yards for par."
Speaking after Tuesday night's dramatic win over Queens Park Rangers, secured courtesy of Jake Livermore's 94th minute goal, West Brom centre-forward Jay Rodriguez warned United that his colleagues have rediscovered their swagger following a chequered sequence of results.
Out of respect for Moore - who played alongside him at Bradford City - and aware the former England international's words were designed to provoke a reaction, Wilder resisted the temptation to respond when they were relayed to him at United's training complex yesterday morning. Instead, after learning one website in the West Midlands had claimed Rodriguez's words would "strike fear into" both his squad and Leeds, who host West Brom next week, he preferred to adopt a more respectful tone; acknowledging the quality at Moore's disposal while noting United's own position in the rankings.
"Of all the teams who came down from the Premier League they, for me, are the best equipped to go straight back up," Wilder said. "They've kept pretty much everyone and what shows their ambition, the power of the club, is that they effectively made one change to the squad. And Dwight Gayle for Salomón Rondón isn't bad is it."
"I played with Mooro and I count him as a pal," he continued. "I've known Wayne Jacobs, whose on his staff, for years going back to Sheffield Boys, when he was a year below me and he also worked with me at Halifax at the beginning of my coaching career.
"Moore is a proper competitor and a proper man. There's no coincidence that when he came in towards the end of the season, his presence galvanised a really talented group of players. If he'd come in a few weeks earlier, I think they'd have stayed up. But I think we've got a really talented group, really good lads, too."
United travel south unbeaten in five outings and, following Saturday's 4-0 thumping of Reading, boasting the division's best home record. West Brom, despite spending heavily in the transfer market since being relegated last term, top the away results ranking.
But, as they adjust to life back in the second tier, have proven less successful in front of their own fans; drawing six of their 16 outings so far this season and winning seven. Gayle, on loan from Newcastle, is available again after being banned for deceiving a match official during West Brom's draw with Nottingham Forest while United's Chris Basham has completed a suspension of his own. The defender was punished for collecting 10 or more bookings since the start of the campaign and could return alongside Jack O'Connell (hamstring) and George Baldock (calf) after they were cleared to resume training. All three missed the victory over José Manuel Gomes' side.
"You look at all the stats and I've told the players that I'm delighted with how they are all contributing," Wilder said. "I still feel, whatever team we pick, that it can go and get a result. It won't faze me if we keep the same team or if we make changes and bring those lads back."