Sheffield United manager provides a fascinating insight into his team's mentality after seeing them enter a whole new world
He was peering out of the window on Sheffield United’s team coach when it came suddenly into view.
There, looming over the non-descript buildings of the High Road, minutes after the driver had snaked his way through Edmonton and Little Russia, stood what Chris Wilder described this morning as “a spaceship” of a football ground - Tottenham Hotspur’s brand new state-of-the-art stadium, which costing a reported £1 billion to construct, reminded his freshly promoted side they had entered a whole new world.
“It’s the journey there, the intensity and then the welcome you get when you arrive,” Wilder remembered. “Even when the team sheets get put in and you look through, realising that you’re up against some of the best players in the world.”
Seven months have passed since Wilder’s team faced Spurs in north London and it is revealing, as United prepare to reacquaint themselves with The Lilywhites on Thursday, that he can still recount every second of the contest in pin sharp detail. Following a difficult return to action after the Covid-19 pandemic - losing two and drawing one of their last three Premier League outings - Wilder believes November’s performance in the capital showcased the qualities his squad must demonstrate to achieve a positive result at Bramall Lane.
“Quite a lot of things went against us that day,” he said, reflecting upon a contest which saw United have a goal controversially ruled-out by VAR before George Baldock replied to Son Heung-min’s opener. “They had just moved into their new place, had one of the best managers in the world and had just got to the Champions League final that summer. We made a mistake, then showed the guts to get back into it. It’s not always about a win when you assess a performance.”
Much has changed since United travelled back to South Yorkshire aggrieved to have only taken a point. Mauricio Pochettino is no longer in the Spurs dug-out, having been replaced by Jose Mourinho less than two weeks after that game, and Wilder’s men, despite surpassing all pre-season expectations, have lost some of the stubbornness which saw them take points of Manchester United and Wolves in their next two matches.
“That, what we did at Spurs, was one of my proudest highlights of the season,” Wilder said. “It’s a brilliant experience playing in the Premier League. It’s the build up, the intensity, the atmosphere, the drive to a spaceship of a ground. Everything.
“That and Manchester United at home - strangely, because we drew that as well - those were two of my proudest moments so far. We need to reproduce those individually and collectively.”
Despite being critical of United’s displays of late - ordering his players to give “their heads a shake” following a 3-0 loss at Newcastle and then watching them “chased all over” Old Trafford - Wilder chose to throw a protective arm around them ahead of Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final with Arsenal. Although that match also ended in defeat, the 52-year-old was encouraged by the display United produced before Dani Ceballos’ added-time winner ended their interest in this season’s competition.
With matches still taking place behind closed doors, Wilder and his captain Billy Sharp have conceded the lack of atmosphere inside top-flight stadia has been bigger handicap than anticipated for a team which, after being promoted last season, used the noise of the crowd as a motivational tool. Now ninth in the table, only a point behind Spurs in seventh, they must find new sources of inspiration as they attempt to bridge the gulf of finance and experience separating them from the likes of Mourinho’s employers - who, despite their reputation for prudence, have still lavished nearly £150m on new signings since last summer.
Wilder provided an insight into the mindset he has cultivated behind the scenes in response to a question about whether rising “expectation levels” are proving a burden for his side.
“Everybody talks about expectation levels, I said after Arsenal if we’d have taken a few more beatings, they’d have dropped,” he said. “But I think you can understand that there was never going to be the notion of throwing games, if you know what I mean.
“So if you do well, you open yourselves up to criticism. It’s an open and honest changing room but I’m their biggest backer. It was good enough for me. If it’s not good enough for others, that’s something I can’t control.”
“We were the underdogs in the Championship,” he continued. “So when we go into the Premier League, as a newly promoted club, we were the underdogs from the off. We are underdogs in every game and rightly so. But not in our coconuts, because we have that fighting mentality. When you reflect afterwards, you can see the differences. But not before.”
Stalling the momentum they had built at the beginning of March, the lockdown has not been kind on United. Defender Jack O’Connell is again likely to be absent - having injured himself before they kickstarted the campaign with a goalless draw at Aston Villa - while midfielder John Lundstram is nursing a shoulder complaint. Spurs, by contrast, are likely to have England’s Harry Kane and Son at their disposal. Both would have missed the trip to United had it gone ahead as scheduled.
“People, obviously, have their opinions on who it has affected and hasn’t,” Wilder said. “The break has helped a couple of teams but we’ll be raring to go on Thursday night.”