Sheffield United: This was a lesson in the importance of always believing and the power of man-management

So driven are Sheffield United, so convinced is Chris Wilder about the potential of this team, you get the impression he is more concerned about the seven point gap between themselves and early leaders Liverpool than the two which separate his players from the relegation places.

Sunday, 1st September 2019, 3:39 pm
Updated Monday, 20th April 2020, 10:40 am
Callum Robinson put Sheffield United back on track at Stamford Bridge: James Wilson/Sportimage

At the beginning of the season, Wilder's insistence that survival did not represent the extent of their ambition was dismissed as rhetoric. Bombastic nonsense from a manager who had forgotten how to lose. But four weeks in, and following a battling draw with Chelsea, people might have to revise their opinions. Because, rather than simply appearing glad to be there, United look like they belong at the highest level.

Saturday's match at Stamford Bridge was instructive for a whole host of reasons. It could, if one of Wilder's post-game messages resonated inside the away dressing room, be hugely significant too.

"Sometimes, I think the coaching staff believe in the players a little bit more than they believe in themselves," he said. "I'm not bothered about reputations or the names on the back of shirts. We are here to be competitive. We are here to show that we are deserving of our place. I don't us to come away from anywhere, even if we do get undone, wondering about what might have been."

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Lys Mousset after the match: James Wilson/Sportimage

Wilder was referring, of course, to the subdued first-half performance United produced in west London. For the first time since being promoted from the Championship, they appeared in awe of their opponents. It was understandable. After drawing with AFC Bournemouth, beating Crystal Palace and then losing a tight encounter with Leicester City, the trip to SW6 was a proper welcome back to the big time for a club which, as Wilder later reminded, was plying its trade in the third tier only three years ago.

To begin with, despite his claims to the contrary, they did not handle it well. Tammy Abraham, Chelsea's preciously talented centre-forward, had already engineered several promising situations before twice taking advantage of defensive errors. But when Callum Robinson reduced the deficit early in the second period, profiting from some good work by the excellent Enda Stevens, they gained a renewed sense of purpose. Abraham went close again, forcing an excellent save from Dean Henderson, and Ross Barkley also tested his handling. But by the time Lys Mousset equalised, with Robinson providing the assist, the momentum had swung decisively in United's favour.

The Frenchman - a fearsome combination of raw power, pace and skill - seems destined to become an invaluable asset over the course of the campaign.

"Three years ago, we were bottom of League One," Wilder continued. "Now, we are going toe to toe with former Premier League champions. We've come a long way in the short period of time.

Callum Robinson shows his emotion: James Wilson/Sportimage

"I don't want us to stand off the opposition. I want us to go out there and play our game. We deserve to be here, I told the lads (during the interval) 'this isn't a cup tie.' We are here on merit."

Of course, with some even bigger tests looming on the horizon, United could soon find themselves peering anxiously over their shoulders rather than gazing up towards the stars. If they are to achieve their objective, the lapses in concentration which gifted Abraham his two efforts must be addressed and eradicated. But United created chances and, after settling into their surroundings, troubled the six-time title winners.

Perhaps the most revealing moment of the afternoon, though, came seconds after the final whistle. Wilder, who had chastised Henderson and Robinson for mistakes before the interval, raced to congratulate his goalkeeper. Then, after smothering him in a bear hug, immediately embraced the former Preston North End striker. The fixture was not only a lesson in the importance of never giving up. It also, we later discovered, highlighted the power of man-management. Wilder knows what his players are capable of producing on the pitch. He understands their emotional triggers too.

"I smashed Dean at half-time, because I thought he should have done better on their first goal and his kicking was all over the place," Wilder said. "So I went up to him at the end because he showed what he was about. Dean kept us in the game with an unbelievable save. Callum should have scored first-half. But they came bouncing back and they responded. I wouldn't have done it if I thought it was going to upset them, would I."

Sheffield United goalkeeper Dean Henderson (centre) celebrates after the final whistle: John Walton/PA Wire.