Billy Sharp was still licking his wounds in the dressing room when Chris Wilder, during an extraordinary outburst, publicly called time on Sheffield United’s play-off bid.
Standing against the wall of a nondescript office located deep inside the belly of the KCOM Stadium, he told the media it was a “waste of breath” talking about promotion so abject was their performance against Hull City.
Nearly seventy-two hours later, when United convened to finalise their preparations for tomorrow’s visit to Reading, Wilder’s temper had definitely improved. But Sharp, one of those exposed to the manager’s wrath, admitted he was still not a good person to be around.
“I think it was good management,” acknowledged yesterday. “We deserved a b********g and it also put pressure on all the other teams. The gaffer was angry and he had every right to be angry so now we’ve got to go out there and put things right.”
Although Wilder’s decision to call time on United’s top six push was undoubtedly premature, even before Middlesbrough, Brentford, Preston North End and Bristol City all conspired to lend them a helping hand, losing to a team fighting relegation represented a huge missed opportunity.
Yet there were also clues, buried deep beneath the anger and expletives, that Wilder also believes they still have a chance. By absolving Sharp and Leon Clarke of any responsibility for Friday’s defeat, he ensured two of United’s most influential squad members remain firmly onside ahead of the trip to Berkshire. Pragmatism and politics, despite the duo being just as culpable as anyone else involved, at their very best.
“The boys have come in with a smile on their faces because we’ve got an opportunity to put what happened behind us,” Sharp said. “We didn’t take one good opportunity. Now we’ve got to make sure we are ready and that we do take another one.”
Beyond Bramall Lane, Wilder’s actions reopened the debate about whether public criticism is counterproductive. Although many in the profession believe it crosses a red line, Sharp is not among them.
“He told you lads in the press exactly what he told us,” the centre-forward, acknowledging life exists beyond Planet Football, said. “He’s not one of those who tells you one thing to you guys and then something different to us. He was fed-up because he’s been driving us for a season now. It’s time for us to give him something back.”
“People in other jobs get it,” he continued. “And you don’t live to a different set of rules at home. Your missus might get on at you all year and then some days, on birthdays or whatever, you have to give a little back. But before you say that’s me in trouble, I didn’t say ‘my missus’ did I? It was a big opportunity to take another step in the right direction but we stalled. As simple as.”
Clearly, with only 13 matches of their season remaining, United can not afford any more unexpected slip-ups. So it will be intriguing to see if Wilder makes wholesale changes against Jaap Stam’s side or chooses to let those responsible for last week’s debacle attempt to make amends. David Brooks, James Wilson and Ricky Holmes could be handed immediate recalls after recovering from injury while Daniel Lafferty, the Northern Ireland international, provides another option after playing at as a wing-back, centre-half and midfielder so far this term. Wilder, whose team will climb from eighth to sixth with a win at the Madejski Stadium, admitted he was still wrestling with that particular dilemma ahead of United’s final training session.
“If at the start of the season you’d have offered a game in hand at the end of February to go sixth, we’d have snapped your hand off,” Sharp said. “This is why I’m still confident, because I know we are a together group. The manager will probably tell you in a few weeks that it was good management. I know he’ll be getting us going on the training pitch and then before the game at Reading.”
United’s latest opponents, who drew 3-3 with Derby County on Saturday, are 18th in the table after reaching the play-off final last term.
“I don’t think Reading have got their chins on the floor,” Sharp said. “They are scoring goals but probably conceding too many. It doesn’t matter who you play at this stage of the season. We just have to make sure that we want it more than Reading. If we do, then hopefully our quality will shine through, especially in the final third.”