“Football people,” was how one member of Nigel Clough’s backroom staff described Chris Wilder and Alan Knill during a visit to Bramall Lane midway through last season. “Proper football people.”
The respect between the two camps was evident again earlier today when, despite being called to discuss tomorrow’s’s game against Burton Albion, the Sheffield United manager’s latest media briefing began with a tribute to his opposite number and predecessor.
“I’ve known Nigel from when I was starting out at Alfreton,” Wilder said. I value his opinion and he’s a really genuine, good football guy. This will be a tough game, especially with the connections, because they always add a bit more. That’s why we’ll be on our guard.”
Clough, the former Nottingham Forest, Liverpool and England centre-forward spent two years in charge of United before being replaced, unsuccessfully, by Nigel Adkins. After saving the club from relegation during his first six months at the helm, he led it into the semi-finals of both the FA and EFL cups before being unceremoniously sacked in 2015. Although Wilder had no interest in debating the whys and wherefores of that decision before overseeing training at the Steelphalt Academy, he did acknowledge Clough, now in his second spell with Albion, had put United back on the map despite failing to lead them out of the third tier.
“Nigel had big results here away from home didn’t he, in the cup competitions,” Wilder, a lifelong United supporter, said. “He knows how to win games at home and away. A couple of years ago, before we came in, he brought Burton here and did a job on Sheffield United. But I think we’re a very different group now with a different atmosphere around the place.”
This evening’s match, which had been scheduled to take place earlier this month before postponed because of bad weather, is of critical importance to both teams. United, five points behind sixth-placed Middlesbrough, need a win to reignite their push for the play-offs. The visitors know they could climb out of the relegation zone if they prevail.
Having paid tribute to Albion’s achievements - “What they’ve done, to come from non-league to here so quickly, is nothing short of remarkable” - Wilder was asked if United’s success since his appointment receives the recognition it deserves.
“It might have slipped a little bit because of where we were and where we are,” Wilder, who led them to the League One title last term replied. “If it was the other way around, had we been coming into this position from 14th, 15th or 16th, it might have been different. But still with 10 games to go, two homes games here, I think it’s brilliant. People talk about how well Middlesbrough are doing. We’re in touching distance. It’s amazing.”
Despite winning only one of their last 11 outings, it will not have gone unnoticed by Wilder and his staff that Albion have collected some prized scalps on the road. Millwall, Cardiff City and Sheffield Wednesday are among the teams Clough’s side have beaten away from home since competition resumed in August. Showing a taste for the big occasion, United’s fellow promotion hopefuls Fulham and Bristol City have also dropped points at the Pirelli Stadium.
“If Nigel keeps them up, for a second season, I think it will be up there with anything anybody else does in terms of winning the division,” Wilder insisted. “Definitely. If a club wins this division, it will be a powerhouse club; Aston Villa, Wolves or Cardiff City. Established Championship clubs and ones who are more than that. Pound for pound, what Nigel will have done if they do survive, will be right up there.”
“I don’t think they’ll come here and look to make it an open game,” Wilder continued. “And this is one of those rare occasions when we are probably expected to win in this division.
“There’s pressure on some absolutely huge clubs around the bottom of the division. The pressure will be on all of those. If the worst comes to the worst for Burton Albion, people will say they expected it. But this year, just like last year, personal pride from the managers and the players will come on to it. You don’t become the manager Nigel has, or be the player he was, without that.
“Sometimes, yes, there is an advantage to being the underdog. But we will give them the utmost respect. The same as we did down at their place.”
United, who could welcome back Leon Clarke and Mark Duffy, triumphed 3-1 in Staffordshire four months ago. Billy Sharp scored twice before Clarke hit the target but the result was overshadowed by an injury to Paul Coutts. The Scottish midfielder is not expected to play again until August after breaking his leg during a challenge with Marvin Sordell. Wilder later absolved the Albion centre-forward of any deliberate wrongdoing while John Brayford, Shaun Barker and Matt Brown, the hosts first team operations coordinator, visited Coutts in hospital; a classy touch from three classy individuals.
“As I said all along, it was unfortunate,” Wilder said. “I don’t believe it was deliberate. It was just a boy trying to block a shot and being a bit reckless and careless. Not malicious.”
“Paul is ditching the crutches this week and he’ll be around for the game,” he added. “It was obviously a disappointing night for us as a club and more so for him. He’s progressing great and we want him back as soon as possible.”