Sheffield United: Chris Wilder leaps to the defence of Premier League players

It is a familiar complaint: cosseted footballers, used to receiving the best of everything but who are supposedly incapable of playing more than one match a week.

Wednesday, 27th November 2019, 3:47 pm
Updated Wednesday, 27th November 2019, 5:20 pm
Oli McBurnie of Sheffield United celebrates scoring his teams third goal against Manchester United during the Premier League match at Bramall Lane, Sheffield: Darren Staples/Sportimage

If the schedule does force them to play twice or heaven forbid even three times, we are told these highly trained athletes, who are so proud of their chiselled torsos they feel compelled to display them in Dubai nightclubs, might disintegrate into a thousand pieces.

Not so long ago, particularly in South Yorkshire, pre-hab used to consist of a 12 hour shift down the pit. Now, despite the advancement of science and technology, professional sportsmen and women would turn white at the prospect of anything more strenuous than a spot of light stretching.

Chris Wilder is not someone who likes to make excuses. Nor, after growing-up on one of the city’s toughest council estates, does he believe the definition of extreme pressure is battling for three points. But, providing an insight into the demands of competing at Premier League level, the Sheffield United manager has little sympathy for those who claim the game has gone soft. In fact, as his squad prepares for one of the most demanding periods of its top-flight fixture schedule, the 52-year-old insists it is tougher than ever.

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“The days when you could go out, have a few pints, then come back in a get down to work are long gone,” Wilder said. “It’s just not like that anymore. You couldn’t get away with it and that’s why there aren’t many out there doing that now.

“The standards these lads have to set, right across the board, have gone through the roof. They have to be bang on it, physically and mentally, right the way across the board.”

Wilder, who made over 120 appearances for United during his own playing career, was speaking ahead of Sunday’s visit to Wolverhampton Wanderers, who face Braga in Europa League competition tomorrow evening. The match, which pits fifth versus sixth in the table, is the first of four his side will contest in the space of a fortnight, with Newcastle, Norwich City and Aston Villa also on the agenda.

Oli McBurnie, who four months ago became the most expensive signing in United’s history when he completed a £20m transfer from Swansea City, could start at Molineux if Lys Mousset’s hamstring proves tighter than feared. After scoring a dramatic late equaliser against Manchester United last weekend, Wilder hopes the centre-forward will benefit from a shot of self-belief and confidence having endured a frustrating start to life at Bramall Lane. That strike, a well-taken effort from inside the penalty area, ended a run of 11 outings without a goal.

Wilder, who also acquired McBurnie’s fellow attackers Callum Robinson and Luke Freeman from Championship clubs, has made little secret of the fact he believes top-flight teams are now stronger than their counterparts in the English Football League. It is a theory, supported by evidence detailing the average height and weight of PL defences, which explains why he suspected McBurnie and his colleagues would require a period of readjustment before producing their best form. It is probably no coincidence that Mousset, once a series of conditioning issues were resolved, pretty might hit the ground running. The Frenchman, who was also on target against Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s side, had spent the previous three seasons with AFC Bournemouth.

“You’re coming up against huge guys now,” Wilder said. “Physically imposing players who are technically strong too. You have to remember where a lot of our lads have come from and what they’ve stepped in to. They are still learning, as we all are, about this division. They’ve already shown they can do it and they’ll continue to get better as well, because they’ve got that desire to improve.”

When United drew with Watford at the beginning of last month, McBurnie spent the majority of the afternoon in an arm-wrestle with Craig Cathcart and Sebastien Prodl; a 6ft 5in Austrian who, if he boxed, would compete as a cruiserweight. United’s frontline did not lack for industry at Vicarage Road. But with David McGoldrick still nursing an injury, it was robbed of arguably its most creative force. McBurnie, and to a lesser extent Robinson, was suffocated. McGoldrick’s return to fitness has not only benefited Mousset and, if he does miss the trip to the Black Country, it will help McBurnie find the type of space he exploited last weekend too.

“Athletically, you’ve seen it move up the levels,” Wilder said, reflecting upon the make-up of a typical PL player. “Listen, you had to work hard in my day and we did. But, seriously, it’s gone through the roof now, in terms of the shape players have to be in in order to be in a position to compete and make an impact.”