A cacophonous crowd watching a crucial match between two Championship upstarts.
Barring a promotion coronation, Chris Wilder could not have picked a better game to celebrate his 100th match in charge of Sheffield United than this weekend’s against Millwall.
“It’s been a another rollercoaster of a season,” he says, bursting into laughter. “But I suppose that’s pretty much par for the course. It’s the way it’s always been here as everybody knows. Probably always will be too.”
Wilder boasts an in-depth knowledge of United’s history, a forensic understanding of her character, strengths and flaws, having both supported the club and represented it as a player before being appointed manager 23 months ago. With a League One title already in the trophy cabinet and prospect of yet more success to come, his journey from terraces to technical area already reads like something torn straight from the pages of a Roy of the Rovers annual. Yet, as we meet in the Steelphalt Academy’s media suite, the 50-year-old is consumed by a desire to “keep driving things forward” rather than bask in the glory or relive the past.
“I think we put the club back on the map last year and we’ve advanced that this year again,” Wilder admits.”I think we’ve come a hell of a long way in a short period of time. I’m not satisfied with it just stopping here though. I don’t want the players to be either. I want to keep achieving and keep driving things forward.”
“I live in the city and the majority of people I speak with and talk to have got a view about this club or a connection with it,” he adds. “They say ‘don’t lose sight of what you’ve done. Don’t lose faith in how you go about things.’ I haven’t but there’s still so much to go for and I wouldn’t be surprised if this group, this bunch of lads, got into the play-offs.”
It speaks volumes about the progress United have made under Wilder that, with only four fixtures of the season remaining, Saturday’s meeting with Millwall is a pivotal fixture.
The visitors, who have also defied all expectations by forcing themselves into promotion contention, make the journey north sixth in the table and unbeaten in 12 outings. The hosts, fresh from Tuesday night’s victory over Middlesbrough, are only three places and three points further back. Little wonder Wilder, as the sound of his squad preparing for training echoes through the room, insists it would be futile trying to downplay the contest’s significance or shield them from the truth.
“It’s no good me faffing about with it. We all know the situation we are in, how big it is. The character has to come through now and I’m sure it can because I believe in this group. These are pro’s.
“There’s lots of things happening. You have to keep going and then go again. Opinions change. I know what the players and what the staff are about.”
Straight-talking has been a feature of Wilder’s reign and, after inheriting a team sleepwalking towards obscurity following six seasons of third tier football, a factor behind the speed of United’s revival. His aversion to spin, double-speak and PR smokescreens also means he is not afraid to confront subjects some might believe are beyond a manager’s remit; expenditure and boardroom politics for example.
“That’s all dependent on a lot of other things,” Wilder, asked where he sees United in a year’s time, responds. “I still think we’ll progress and move forward. But at what rate and what speed is really out my control really. What I can control is the players’ attitudes and their motivation, their desire to improve their games and our desire as a staff to learn and improve them individually.”
“The bigger boys are there to be taken down,” he adds. “That’s been our attitude. It’s got to be our attitude into all the games too. To be fair, it has been, and we’ve shown that we compete.
““We’ve tried to make a habit of proving people wrong,” Wilder says. “We’ve not had it all our own way. I’ve not had it all my own way personally either. But that’s what drives you on. That’s what gives you the desire to make things happen.”
Wilder’s reputation for delivering big results on modest budgets has been cemented by United’s performances this term. However, before leaving the room prepare for the most important match of their season so far, he issues a remark which at first seems surprising but, on reflection, explains both his standing among supporters and secret for success.
“The thing that pleases me most is that the fans, I don’t think, have ever been short-changed. Okay, we’ve not been top drawer every game. This is professional sport after all. But they’ve never been short-changed. Most of all, we want them to be proud of their club.”