Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder answers the burning FA Cup question

Earlier in the week, as managers with deeper squads and even deeper pockets were complaining about the demands the FA Cup places upon their players, Chtis Wilder’s sympathy was probably limited.

Sunday, 26th January 2020, 12:01 pm
Updated Sunday, 26th January 2020, 6:50 pm

Less than a year after being promoted from the Championship, and only three after guiding them out of League One, reaching eighth in the top-flight had already required a herculean effort from his players. But mindful that football should be about the pursuit of medals and glory, not simply extending your membership of English football’s most exclusive gentlemen’s club, Wilder resolved to select as strong a side as possible for Sheffield United’s fourth round tie against Millwall at The Den. Despite acknowledging the mental and physical challenges of trying to establish a foothold, after more than a decade away, in the country’s most taxing competition.

“The lads would have been comfortable with whatever changes we made,” Wilder said, following a deserved but hard-fought 2-0 win. “But why not have a go at it?

“We’ll have a little look before the next cup game. But, as far as I’m concerned, it’s another game we want to try and win.”

Sign up to our Sheffield United newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Nearly four weeks ago, when United took their first tentative step along the road which leads to Wembley by dispatching AFC Fylde, Wilder had rotated his entire starting eleven as part of a calculated gamble. Sandwiched in between trips to reigning champions Manchester City and their soon to be successors Liverpool, he reckoned United could rest their key names and still have enough to overcome non-league opponents.

Wilder’s hunch proved correct but his selections were much more conservative for the visit to south London. It was a mark of not only United’s respect for a Millwall team previously unbeaten in six and also his desire to qualify for the later stages of the competition.

The benefits were two fold. Not only did goals from Mo Besic and Oliver Norwood enable United to book a place in the fifth round draw but those who were drafted-in, including Luke Freeman, Ben Osborn and Phil Jagielka, were able to stake claims for more regular action because, rather than being forced to work off the cuff, the framework around them was already established.

“We went strong,” Wilder said. “If you go above four, five and six (changes) it really does affect the rhythm and balance.

Chris Wilder, the Sheffield United manager, on the touchline: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“So it was important the likes of (Chris) Basham, Dean (Henderson) and Jack (O’Connell) played. Oli (Norwood) too.”

“It gave us a real solid base,” he continued. “For the others as well, they have gone into a group and are comfortable with what is around them.”

With the next phase of the tournament scheduled for midweek, between United’s fixtures against Aston Villa and Norwich City, Wilder will assess the state of play and the opposition before deciding whether or not to stick with the same selection policy which ended Millwall’s hopes of progressing.

Seven points shy of the 40 point threshold usually required to guarantee survival, Wilder could have the luxury of being able to prioritise the cup by the time the week commencing March 2nd comes around. However, with PL members receiving around £2m for every place their finish above the bottom, even the difference between finishing seventh and 10th could help Wilder snare hius top targets during this summer’s transfer window.

“I think people would have understood our attitude (to changes) in League One, where the club was,” he said. “And I think they would have definitely understood in the Championship, especially last year.

“In the year before, we got knocked out to Leicester City and there was no disgrace in that.

“I was still desperately hurt last year, when we got beat in the third round by Barnet, because it is in you to win games.

“But I think people could understand the changes we made then, and also in the Fylde game because of the back to back Premier League matches against Liverpool and Manchester City.”