Sheffield United: ‘Your club needs you’ Blades fans are told ahead of crucial Nottingham Forest clash
Earlier this week, when Sheffield United held their latest pre-match briefing at the Steelphalt Academy, there was a comforting smell of familiarity in the fresh morning air.
Chris Wilder came out fighting. Oliver Norwood, the player put up for interview, spoke with real defiance.
This was United with their backs to the wall and, after being written-off in the battle for promotion from the Championship, flicking a metaphorical finger towards the establishment. In other words, doing what they do best.
"One hundred per cent we're in it," Wilder said. "I can't do anything about opinions. Whatever is being talked about, be it at Leeds, West Brom or even in our own city, that's not my concern. All we're trying to do is effect what we do here."
It seems strange, when you survey the league standings with four matches remaining, that the potential of Wilder's team is being questioned ahead of tomorrow’s game against Nottingham Forest. But after last weekend's draw with Millwall left them three points off the top two pace, that is exactly the position they now find themselves in thanks to a combination of injuries, suspension and, as many supporters have been quick to remind on social media, a miserable record in the play-offs. Although Wilder understands the tension - "It get it, I really do" - he deliberately chose to ratchet it up as United attempt to hunt down their rivals from West Yorkshire and keep James Shan's fourth-placed squad at bay.
"The players need the help and they deserve the help," Wilder said, acknowledging their most recent result was disappointing before issuing a plea to the terraces. "They have nothing to apologise for. They don't owe anybody anything and I don't think I do, with what's happened over the past few years.
"I haven't let anybody down and the players certainly haven't. The majority and the sensible ones will get behind us and look after us. And the players deserve that. If there was ever a team, this is one that deserves it."
On Monday, when preparations for Forest's visit began in earnest, Steven Sylvester also spoke about the power of a crowd. Rather than massaging individual egos, the cricketer turned psychologist reminds his clients that sport, and teams disciplines in particular, mean they are actually serving a far greater purpose. His approach, which emphasises the importance of culture and community, has helped the West Indies rediscover their old swagger and Peter Ebdon lift a world snooker title. It should resonate at Bramall Lane where, as he has stated on countless occasions, Wilder wants his squad to reflect the personality of the region as a whole.
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"I'd be a sensible fan, an emotional one but a sensible one," he said. "I'd put everything together. They'd certainly get my support."
"These boys put it all in, they care, and trust me not everyone can say that," Wilder, a lifelong United follower, added. "Some players don't give two whatevers about who they represent."
United were ninth when they faced Forest in the corresponding fixture last season, less than a year after being promoted from League One. The headway they have made in the 13 months since has been nothing short of remarkable. Especially, despite enjoying increased financial support over the past 12 months, given the sums lavished on players by many of their rivals. Indeed Forest, who make the short journey north in 11th, lavished nearly £20m on two alone at the beginning of the campaign. Of all the clubs promoted from the third tier in the past six seasons, only Wolverhampton Wanderers and AFC Bournemouth are performing better than United.
"That helps, with Fosun and a Russian billionaire," Wilder said. It's tough to win games at any stage of the season and when, fact, you don't have the scale of backing some of the others have. Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City, they win 99 times out of a 100 because of that backing. There was a team a few miles down the M1 (Leicester City) who broke it up but, in a few years, people will forget about the perfect storm and wonder how that happened."
United's plan to overhaul Leeds and avoid the end of term knockouts has been complicated by the loss of Billy Sharp and Chris Basham to hamstring complaints and John Egan's red card against Millwall. Although the latter is expected to return against Hull City on Monday, Sharp and Basham will both miss the trip to the KCOM Stadium. Gary Madine, whose goal appeared to have condemned the Londoners to defeat until Jake Cooper's 94th minute equaliser, could spearhead United's attack in Sharp's absence.
"This is another opportunity for us to get three points," Wilder said. "It's a big weekend and it's good that it's a big weekend. We've got something big to play for."