Chris Wilder can not recall the exact moment he realised Sheffield United had assembled a special group of players.
But he does remember the time when, languishing at the foot of the League One table after August’s defeat by Millwall, coaching staff risked life and limb to help inspire the remarkable upturn in fortune which eight months later delivered the title to Bramall Lane.
“I looked at it after Millwall away and thought ‘if we win 30 games that takes us to this many points’,” Wilder, whose side will reach 100 if they beat Chesterfield tomorrow, joked. “One of the things that has been missed, though, is when I took my life into my hands trying to drag £100 worth of beer onto the team bus in Bermondsey wearing my Sheffield United tracksuit. I was looking out for the locals but, then again, they were probably happy because their lads had just done us in.”
Wilder’s description of his mad dash through the mean streets of London was among the highlights of what proved a light-hearted pre-match media conference at the Steelphalt Academy yesterday. Tactics were discussed and potential transfer targets probed but, for the most part, the 49-year-old spent an hour eulogising about United’s achievements this term.
Wilder’s mood did sour, though, when conversation turned to the situation he inherited after being appointed manager in May. Then, only weeks after limping to an 11th placed finish under his predecessor Nigel Adkins, the lifelong United supporter walked into a club disillusioned, dispirited and, he admitted, approaching a major crossroads.
“They’re a brave group of players,” Wilder said. “At the start, they were under pressure. I think this club was at a tipping point. I was sat having beer with John Garrett in the The Lescar and I’ve never seen him, who has passionately watched supported and worked for this football club, so down. I had to take his belt off him and his laces out of his shoes. Like a lot of people, he was very down about what was happening to this football club. And then we had that start.”
Wilder, of course, is referring to the run of three defeats and a draw which left United propping-up the rest of the division after four games. Twenty-nine wins and eighty-nine goals later, they enter the final match of their season 14 points clear of their nearest rivals Bolton Wanderers.
“It’s been littered with big moments,” Wilder said. “Willo’s (James Wilson) goal to get the first win against Oxford, Sharpy’s (Billy Sharp) penalty down at Gillingham and then on from there. But these lads have never hid. Even when it was tough which, probably, is when you realised they’ve got something about them.”