Sheffield United: Why The Blades’ recent run of games are the perfect preparation for the Steel City derby against Sheffield Wednesday and beyond
It has been a gruelling run of games, both mentally and physically, as Sheffield United attempt to seal their return to the Premier League.
But Chris Wilder believes a fixture schedule which has pitted his team against Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion since the turn of the month, represents ideal preparation for next week's derby against Sheffield Wednesday.
Acknowledging Monday's visit to Hillsborough will test the focus and camaraderie of his squad like no other match on their calendar, the United manager said: "All of them, everyone, has had the ability to hurt us. We've had to dig in and show commitment, right the way through every single one, because otherwise you get punished.
"I think the character of the boys has shone through, not just the ones who have started game, because we've had people come on and have to do important jobs at key moments and in important situations."
Although there is a school of thought a series of less emotionally charged tests might have been more beneficial, particularly given the number of minor injuries they have sustained in recent weeks, United will make the short-journey across the city focused and battle-hardened having faced two fellow top six clubs within the space of 10 days.
And as Wilder explained following Saturday's victory at The Hawthorns, which came a little over a week after United beat Tony Pulis' side, his players entered their clash with West Brom under even greater pressure because of the kick-off time. Taking place in the evening slot for television purposes, United knew Leeds, who they face on March 16, had won together with leaders Norwich City.
"We in a good place," Wilder said, after United climbed to second in the table. "Every time we take to the pitch between now and the end (of the season), we know what's going to be at stake and we'll enjoy being in that situation as well as being ready."
Despite preparing for the trip to Wednesday unbeaten in six and searching for a fourth successive clean sheet, Wilder is adamant United must improve technically in order to seize their promotion opportunity. Psychologically, however, he suspects their performance in the West Midlands confirmed they are well-equipped.
"I thought we had more time to control the game and take the game away from West Brom," he said. "They were chucking people forward left, right and centre as they were trying to get back into the game. They have outstanding players and I know the manager really well and they will always go to the death."
"It was always going to be that case and we had to see it out until the 96th minute," Wilder added. "We will look at it and see hopefully that we can do better."