Millwall was where Sheffield United turned into lions

He didn’t really want to talk about it.

Thursday, 23rd January 2020, 5:18 pm
Updated Thursday, 23rd January 2020, 5:27 pm

In fact, as the conversation turned towards his first appearance at Millwall as Sheffield United manager, Chris Wilder kept stressing the occasion’s significance had been blown out of all proportion.

“It was only a bit of fun,” he protested, “To try and ease the boredom of a long journey. It wasn’t really that special. It’s something I’d done plenty of times before.”

But try as he might, as United prepare to return to the scene of arguably the most pivotal match in their recent history, Wilder eventually conceded defeat and shed some fresh light on events following their defeat at The Den four years ago.

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An inconsequential back street in Bermondsey, around half a mile or so away from the ground, seems an unlikely setting for story of how a club dragged itself off the bottom of the League One table and, in the space of 32 short months, secured promotion to the Premier League.

But it was there, after suffering a fourth defeat in his first five outings since being appointed, that Wilder took the first of two decisions which would prove the catalyst for a remarkable period of success.

“How we got through that part of town, with ‘Sheffield United’ plastered all over the coach and everyone in Sheffield United tracksuits, I’ll never quite know,” Wilder smiled as he reminisced, albeit after a little prompting, about the moment he ordered his players to drown their sorrows after a heart-breaking set-back in south London.

“It’s a decent tale I suppose, how we stopped off at a shop near the ground and bought a hundred quid’s worth of beer. But really, I only told the lads to go and get them for myself.

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder takes his team to Millwall this weekend: James Wilson/Sportimage

“We’d had a difficult afternoon and that was a tough period in what has otherwise been a fabulous period for the staff, the players and the club.

“We had a little bit of pain early on but we were still finding out about the lads, what suited them, and that’s what management is all about.”

“So we stopped the bus and I told Billy (Sharp, United’s captain) to go and get some cans in.

“I paid for it. Well, actually the club paid for it because I think I put it on the credit card.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola before Tuesday's Premier League match at Bramall Lane, Sheffield: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.

“Really it wasn’t that unusual. It’s been well documented though, how we eased the long journey back with some Stella.”

Four years on, Wilder can laugh about what, by modern standards, was his unconventional response to a result which left United propping up the rest of the third tier. But those who were there at the time, who witnessed the squad sloping out of the stadium after Steve Morison’s last minute penalty propelled Millwall to victory, can confirm this was a group at its lowest ebb.

But after supping a few lagers and enjoying some honest and frank discussions, United embarked upon a remarkable run which saw them win the title at a canter before, after flirting with the play-offs, climb out of the Championship a season later.

On Saturday, when they arrive at Millwall for an FA Cup fixture, they will do so, on current form, as the eighth best club in the country.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp is a fan of Sheffield United's approach and attitude: John Walton/PA Wire.

It was after that loss, in August 2016, when Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill resolved to put into action a plan they had been considering for some time: the switch to three at the back, including attacking wing-backs and overlapping centre-halves, which has since become United’s trademark.

“A lot has been talked about it but really, it’s just developed,” Wilder said, glossing over the fact he had first devised the idea eight weeks earlier. “There was no special methods or thinking behind it.

“It just worked for our players and we had to do something different in League One.

“It’s another decent story but other teams have played 3-5-2 before us and pushed on. We don’t quite push on as much as we did last year though.

“We’ve tweaked it since, as we’ve moved up through the levels, and we’ll continue to do that because you’ve got to be flexible.”

The narrative Wilder chose to peddle when he sat down with the media to discuss the fourth round tie did little justice to his strategy’s impact upon the way others now think about the art of defending. Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp has described their approach as “phenomenal”, Leeds Marcelo Bielsa declared it “worthy of study” and Pep Guardiola, one of the Argentine’s most dedicated disciples, was also full of praise for United’s approach following Manchester City’s narrow win at Bramall Lane on Tuesday.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Wilder used events during that match, settled by Sergio Aguero’s second-half strike, to explain the importance of intelligence and innovation.

“The best manager in the world, him (Guardiola) and Jurgen, are flexible,” he continued. “Manchester City turned up at our place and before the game, they changed their system to something different. Pep’s players just went out there and grasped it.

“You’ve got to be clever and smart enough to take that out onto the pitch and that’s what everyone is looking for in players. People who can adapt.”

United will have to do exactly that when they face opponents, progressing well under Gary Rowett, who have lost only one of their last 14 outings. Jack Robinson, signed from Nottingham Forest earlier this week, could make his debut for the visitors while Jack Rodwell, Wilder’s first acquisition of the transfer window, is also set to feature.

“It will be a different challenge to the last one we had,” Wilder said. “But ‘difference’ is what football is all about.

“Take City again. They knew we had to be physical against them but when Mo (Besic) cleaned out one of their lads at the start, there was no moaning or jumping around from their bench.

“They accepted it and got on with it. They took on the challenge. That’s what we’ve got to do here because we are representing Sheffield United and wearing Sheffield United shirts.”

Despite his belief in traditional values - “Players shouldn’t be praised for running about, because that should be a prerequisite” - Wilder is also constantly searching for ways to fine-tune the science United apply behind the scenes.

“I watched a video on Bill Belichick at the New England Patriots in the NFL the other day,” he said. “He was an innovator and everyone copied him.

“There’s a lot of copying that goes on in football, we all nick and steal ideas, trying to come up with different bits and pieces.

“Look at Pep, he’s been an incredible innovator from Barcelona to Bayern Munich to here in England. Sometimes stuff just falls into your lap but, honestly, the majority of it is nicked.

“But it’s still good to try and work out what is best for your lads.”