They have spent plenty of time in each other’s company and, when the situation allows, share a few beers.
But later this morning, when Paul Heckingbottom renews Chris Wilder’s acquaintance, the visiting manager is in for a surprise.
“I’ve been thinking about something,” Wilder admitted last night. “When we go into the referee’s room beforehand, we always say ‘best wishes and best of luck.’ Then, I leave thinking ‘well not really.’ So I probably shouldn’t be doing that, I probably shouldn’t be saying it. I think I’m going to just shake hands from now on and then see what happens afterwards.”
Wilder’s change of tact betrays the fact his Sheffield United side have reached a critical stage of the season. Not to mention, he acknowledged, the importance of today’s game against their neighbours Leeds. Eighth in the Championship, two places above Heckingbottom’s team, United know a positive result would give fresh momentum to a promotion push which has faltered since Christmas and left them five points behind Bristol City in sixth.
Heckingbottom’s appointment on Tuesday, which came less than a week after he signed a new contract with Barnsley, provides another fascinating backdrop to a fixture already steeped in history and, precisely because of that, animosity.
“I’m not going to be kicking any water bottles at him,” Wilder continued. “We’ll have a drink before and after, well after if you know what I mean. But it’s about doing the business. Apart from the team down the road (Sheffield Wednesday), this is the next one the fans look for. It’s going to be lively and we’ll be looking to do the double over them but, of course, they’ll have other ideas.”
Wilder, whose team triumphed 2-1 at Elland Road four months ago, admitted there is another aspect to this Yorkshire rivalry.
“There was TC (Tony Currie) and even before, players that have gone from here to there,” he said. “Alex Sabella went, Mick Jones, they seemed to always nick our best players. Down the line, Brian Deane went too.
“They’ve always been tasty games, going back into TC’s age, they were at their pomp. They were a machine of a team then. It’s a huge club, it’s got history and stature. But they are in this division and there are no gimmes because of size and history. There wasn’t for us last year.”
Wilder, who steered United to the League One title last term, boasts an enviable reputation for spotting and then developing untapped talent. Heckingbottom, the former Barnsley and Sheffield Wednesday defender, arrives at Leeds with similar credentials.
“His record has been outstanding at Barnsley, he’s been touted for a lot of big jobs and I don’t mean that disrespectfully to Barnsley because they’ve done great,” Wilder said. “One thing is, that Paul can spot a player and can work with players. He improves them as individuals and as a team.
“You try and get the maximum out of what you’ve got at your disposal. We’ve tried to do that. That’s the key at every level of football, what you resources are, what your facilities are, make sure you get the best out of that.”