Revealed: Why Chris Wilder has been forced to tear up his managerial playbook ahead of Sheffield United's trip to Fulham
Ideally, he’d take them to the pub. Maybe book a paintballing session, a spot of go-karting or even organise a long, gruelling hike through the Peak District with a few pit stops for liquid refreshment pencilled in along the route. Basically do anything other than actually playing football and worrying about results.
The only trouble is, as Chris Wilder has discovered since the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic coincided with the start of the latest Premier League season, the therapy manual he religiously turned to in the past is now hopelessly out of date. Social distancing measures mean Sheffield United’s players have no way of escaping the suffocating pressure of their relegation battle.
“There’s all sorts of tricks and stunts I would have pulled in this period,” Wilder says, starting into the lens of his laptop camera at the club’s Steelphalt Academy training complex. “You just can’t do any of them now.
“There have been times when we’d have taken their mind away from the game completely. We’d have gone for a stroll, enjoyed a pub lunch and had a Guinness. Then another Guinness and another Guinness and probably another Guinness after that. All of those things, all of the methods you’ve used before and know for a fact that they work, they just aren’t available to us now. So the only thing you can do is take a long and deep breath, try to lighten the mood and keep the lads’ spirits high by making things as fun and enjoyable as possible. Oh, and letting them know that no matter what anybody else might be saying, the staff here and myself are proud of them.”
After finishing ninth in the table last term, only a season after being promoted from the Championship, United were quite happy to spend their time fine-tuning tactics, devising new strategies and basically obsessing about every aspect of the game. Scroll five forgettable months forward, however, and the mood around the camp has changed. Saturday’s visit to Fulham, which only a couple of weeks ago was being tagged as a pivotal fixture in the battle to avoid relegation, now appears to be the first instalment of United’s top-flight farewell tour. Monday’s defeat by West Ham, combined with a series of unhelpful results over the weekend, means United travel to Craven Cottage at the bottom of the table and 14 points adrift of safety with only 14 matches remaining.
Despite maintaining a sense of perspective - “What we’ve had to put up with is nothing compared to others across the country” - Wilder is convinced restrictions imposed because of the health crisis have contributed to his squad’s troubles of late. The ban on supporters attending games has seen United lose one of the most powerful weapons in their armoury, while there have been other, less obvious, consequences too. The daily coffee club, where senior players would discuss forthcoming opponents and welcome new faces into the fold, has also been forced to close.
“It’s not just here where the lads see each other,” Wilder explains, glancing momentarily away from the screen. “Whether it was Costa on Ecclesall Road or going out for a little bite to eat, that was all part of building up the spirit and keeping everything tight. Unfortunately none of that can happen at the moment. But it’s an incredibly small thing in terms of what’s happening with other people. It’s a small infringement.”
Speaking earlier this week, Wilder acknowledged United’s performance at the London Stadium suggests the gravity of the situation is beginning to weigh heavy on his team. Maladroit and ponderous for long periods, their refusal to take quick decisions and tendency to over elaborate were, he confessed, all symptoms of a group under extreme pressure.
As United prepare to make the journey to west London, where Scott Parker’s side have given themselves a fighting chance of survival by drawing four and winning one of their last six outings, Wilder has even suggested a change of viewing habits might help inspire an upturn in fortune.
“Ideally, I’d take them out of the football bubble,” he says. “But that’s impossible because they’re footballers and so they watch football on the television all the time. They never get away from it.
“Everyone has got an opinion. Some are good and some are bad. There’s some pundits I admit that I don’t really listen to. There’s some really good ones, who are more considered, but there’s some I just switch off.”
“The best thing might not be to watch any matches at all, but they’re on all the time and this is our game isn’t it,” he continues. “I’m not one for ‘I’m a Celebrity’ or anything like that. I do like a bit of Gogglebox, that’s alright. But then it always comes back to football because it’s my sport. You just can’t help yourself.”
Strangely, United’s position at the foot of the rankings could actually prove beneficial moving forward. Although they will publicly insists otherwise, Wilder and his players accept privately they are almost certainly going down. But how clubs go down is important. Better to do so fighting, on the back of a few victories, rather than meekly sliding back into the EFL. When United faced their namesakes from Manchester three weeks ago, the fact they viewed the contest as a shot to nothing allowed them to play with a freedom and purpose which eventually saw them prevail 2-1. Fulham, six points behind 17th place, do not have the same luxury. Knowing that a win over United could blow the race for survival wide open - Newcastle, one place above the drop zone, visit Old Trafford on Sunday - means they must go about their work with more consideration.
“We’ve got nothing to lose,” Wilder said. “It’s tough, nobody is enjoying what’s happening. But we might as well just go for it, because we need to take risks.”