Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder vows to continue telling it like it is as Premier League pressure increases
Chris Wilder, the Sheffield United manager, has vowed to continue delivering honest appraisals of his players’ performances despite growing increasingly exasperated by claims that public criticism of Premier League footballers is counterproductive.
Speaking ahead of tomorrow’s visit to Fulham, a match United simply must win to retain even the faintest hope of survival, Wilder identified injuries and individual errors as the most influential factors behind their struggles this term.
With John Fleck and John Egan joining a list of absentees which already includes the likes of Jack O’Connell, Sander Berge and Jack Robinson ahead of the trip to west London, Wilder admitted United have been “smashed” by fitness issues since finishing ninth in the table last term - an achievement he believes was made possible thanks to a settled starting eleven.
Although Wilder agreed with suggestions that the type of mistakes which cost his team dear at West Ham on Monday are a symptom of the constant upheaval United have experienced since September’s return to action, he refuted the notion that it is wrong for coaching staff to highlight them in the media.
“These are professional footballers, they have to take disappointment,” Wilder replied when asked if, following their 3-0 defeat in east London, he needed to lift those under his command. “What should I say to them? Shall I say: ‘Would you like me to run you a hot bath and put some bubbles in it?’ Should I ask them ‘Do you fancy training today? I know the weather isn’t great and this session might be a bit repetitive but would you come out for 10 minutes? You will? That’s brilliant. That’s really good of you.’ You need to do it yourself and they will.”
“It does my head in when people think you shouldn’t say this or that,” Wilder continued, clearly warming to the theme. “We have made far too many mistakes and you can’t make those in this division.
“In any workplace, you are allowed to say things within reason. I’m not bothered about what psychologists, do-gooders or whatever name people use these days think. I’m a football manager and I say it how it is. Go and ask Kyle Walker what it’s like in Manchester City’s dressing room. He’ll tell you it’s ruthless and cutthroat. But what people also overlook is the fact that I do have a human and empathetic side. I’m also their biggest supporter and they wouldn’t have gone out and got the results they have over the past four years or so if they thought I was an idiot. I’ll be honest, but I also back them to the hilt.”
United return to the capital at the bottom of the table, 14 points adrift of safety and eight behind Fulham who are in 17th place. Egan, who left the pitch on a stretcher towards the end of the meeting with David Moyes’ side, is set to be out for around two months after being diagnosed with a dislocated toe. Fleck, who sat out that match through illness, is still undergoing tests after being examined in hospital. Wilder refused to divulge the exact nature of the Scot’s condition but appeared to confirm he would miss United’s latest trip to the capital too.
“After thorough tests on John, we’ve got the results back and he is being monitored,” Wilder said. “John Egan is out for eight weeks, he has got a dislocated toe. Once again, it wasn’t self inflicted. You saw his reaction straight away.”
“I actually feel sorry for our medical staff, because they’ve been brilliant,” he added. “We’ve had very few muscle injuries because of overplaying. We’ve had John Fleck falling, John Egan block tackle and Oli Mac doing his shoulder in a collision.”
With United’s board of directors electing not to strengthen during the recent transfer window, something they attributed to the team’s position in the rankings and concerns about the quality of previous signings, Wilder’s room for manoeuvre at Craven Cottage is limited. Phil Jagielka is expected to deputise for Egan, while Ben Osborn is in pole position to fill the gap created by Fleck’s condition. At West Ham, teenager Frankie Maguire was the only recognised midfielder United were able to name on the bench. A graduate of their Steelphalt Academy youth programme, Maguire has yet to make his senior debut despite also appearing among the substitutes when United reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup by beating Bristol City earlier this month.
The situation has prompted Wilder to emphasise the importance of producing a perfect body of work - “Or as near to perfect as possible” - at Fulham. Two of the three goals United conceded at the London Stadium were, he accepted, caused by poor decision-making.
Recounting an incident from his own past, as a young trainee at Southampton, Wilder said: “I remember doing a Cruyff turn in the middle of the pitch during a Hampshire League game once as a 17-year-old. I got battered, absolutely hammered, by the senior pro’s - people like Matt Le Tissier and Frankie Benali - because I’d cost them the game. They let me know during the game and coming off as well. So I never did it again. I made some mistakes, because I had a pretty bang average career as a player. But I never made that one again. That’s the mindset we have to have. That and to fight, which these boys will.”