Sheffield United: Chris Wilder on Newcastle, Steve Bruce, the importance of supporters and what really makes his Blades tick
By rights he should be satisfied. Unbeaten in seven, his newly promoted team enter this game against Newcastle rubbing shoulders with some of English football’s most iconic names towards the top of the Premier League.
But watching Chris Wilder during his latest pre-match media briefing, observing his body language and demeanor, it was impossible not to conclude he feels Sheffield United have sold themselves short in recent weeks. Despite drawing with Tottenham Hotspur, Wolverhampton Wanderers and their namesakes from Manchester.
“It’s constantly drilled into them,” Wilder said. “We ask ‘Are we happy with what we’ve got? Or do we want more?’ We’ve got a healthy points total but it won’t look so healthy if we stand back and admire what we’ve done because other people will overtake us.
“It’s been a solid, decent start. But that’s what it is; a start. We don’t want to leave it until January, February or March to win football matches. There’s one coming up and we want to attack it.”
Listening to Wilder speak ahead of the meeting with Steve Bruce’s side provided an insight, not only into the 52-year-old’s character, but also his team as well. Despite twice delivering promotion in the space of three seasons, the former defender and lifelong United supporter still wants more. And demands his players never feel comfortable or content too. It is precisely that insatiable appetite for success which, after fuelling the club’s rapid rise through the divisions, has ensured, rather than growing complacent, United have proved surprisingly competitive at the highest level. Indeed, assessing the latest challenge on their top-flight agenda provided Wilder with the chance to identify another powerful source of motivation; the opportunity to prove the so-called ‘experts’ wrong.
“We’ve not been expected to win any game,” he insisted. “There’s some pundits who put us down for two or three points. Fair enough. But that’s not our attitude. We’ve invested. But we’re not expected to win. We weren’t expected to win against Manchester United or Tottenham. We weren’t expected to take anything. That’s not the way we look at it from within the group though. We are heads down and onto the next result. Let’s drive this forward and see what we can do.”
Whereas United have become adept at exceeding expectations, tonight’s visitors have seemingly mastered the art of failing to meet them. Boasting one of the most loyal fan bases in the country, Newcastle consistently flatter to deceive on the pitch. Thanks, in no small part, to the friction between supporters and owner Mike Ashley; a man seemingly as skilled at creating chaos out of calm as he is at selling cut-price sporting goods. Given that United have also just emerged from a period of strife inside the boardroom, events in the North-East should serve as a reminder to those in charge now about the importance of ensuring those on the terraces remain engaged. The same goes for Wilder, whose former counterpart at St James’ Park Rafael Benitez effectively resigned his position at the end of last season after growing tired of what he perceived as Ashley’s lack of ambition.
“It’s huge, having the fans behind you, at any club,” Wilder said. “I don’t think anyone should under-estimate the impact a positive support has upon players’ performances. I know there will be moans if someone boots the ball out of play or misses a chance. But a positive environment, I’ve always been big on this, gives players the best chance of producing their best performances.
“Our fans here, they’ve been brilliant,” he added. “They get right behind us and, seriously, you can’t over-estimate what a help that has been.”
Bruce, one of Wilder’s predecessors at United and previously Sheffield Wednesday manager, is attempting to effect a similar transformation on the banks of the Tyne after being appointed in July. After a difficult start to life at the club he has also followed since childhood, Bruce, whose arrival was initially greeted with suspicion, is beginning to win .
over the doubters.
Having adopted a more attacking approach in recent weeks, Newcastle travel to South Yorkshire searching for their third win in five outings and on the back of a draw against Manchester City.
The visitors have also beaten Spurs and Manchester United, where Bruce spent nine years as a player, this term.
Inevitably, given his time at Hillsborough, Wilder was asked what type of reception Bruce should receive from United followers when he returns to South Yorkshire; five months after walking out of Wednesday to take charge of Newcastle. Like Wilder, Bruce is a fan of the club he now leads which, according to the 52-year-old, meant the invitation to replace Benitez would have proved impossible to resist. Indeed, during United’s pre-season tour of Portugal, both Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill were convinced Bruce’s appointment was a fait accompli after travelling to watch Wednesday play a friendly nearby. Not so long later, following a terse stand-off with Wednesday owner Dejphon Chansiri, he was gone.
Still, having joked Bruce should receive a “standing ovation” for leaving Wednesday, Wilder acknowledged managing your boyhood team brings certain responsibilities.
“You do have to separate yourself from it,” he said. “You can’t make the right decisions if you’re jumping about and don’t have a clear head. Of course, there is emotion. It’s an emotional game before and after for Steve and I and Dean (Smith) at (Aston) Villa. But maybe that’s doing a bit of a disservice to other managers in the Premier League, who are passionate about their clubs.”
“There’s huge pressure on you, maybe a little bit more,” Wilder added. “We’ve had good results for three years which makes day to day life a little easier. But everyone knows football management is about results and that’s what we have to get.
“There was a lot of talk, especially in this region, about Steve going back to his club. I’ve got to say that I wasn’t surprised by his decision.”
Given the scheduling of their meeting - which is being streamed live by internet giant Amazon - both United and Newcastle could be tempted to make changes ahead of Sunday’s fixtures against Norwich City and Southampton respectively. Bruce could hand starts to Dwight Gayle and DeAndre Yedlin, who is thought to have recovered from a hip complaint while Allan Saint-Maximin is a doubt due to injury.
Wilder, meanwhile, has a fully fit squad at his disposal; a situation, given the physical and psychological stress of top-flight competition, he said reflected well upon the work of United’s conditioning department. With John Fleck, John Lundstram and George Baldock all one caution away from suspension, United are more likely to reshuffle their pack at Carrow Road.
“I’ve got that option, everybody is fit which is testament to the work we do with conditioning,” Wilder confirmed. “The work that people do, away from the lights, is important. The people away from the lights. You’ll always get injuries, but the pulls, strains and niggles you want to stay away from, we’ve managed to do that. And that is a tribute to the conditioning. So we have the option to rotate, although whether we do that on Thursday or on Sunday we’ll have to see.”