First, before he starts talking tactics or team selections, Chris Wilder wants to get one thing straight.
The Steel City derby might not enjoy the same national coverage as, say, its counterparts in London, Glasgow or the North-East. But, as far as Sheffield United’s manager is concerned, meetings between his club and Sheffield Wednesday are the very best of British.
“Liverpool versus Everton, Arsenal versus Tottenham or Newcastle and Sunderland,” Wilder explains.”I’ve got to say they don’t do a lot for me. This is the big one. This is the one that matters. It’s bigger and better, in my eyes at least, than everything else.”
Wilder, the sceptics will argue, is bound to talk-up the fixture. After all, as well as leading one of the protagonists, he has also played for United and supported them since childhood. However, on closer analysis, his words carry weight. Top-flight clashes might boast the household names. But tomorrow’s game, despite taking place in the Championship, is surrounded by a history no amount of overwrought marketing or PR spiel can match.
“This is a proper football city,” Wilder continues. “Make no mistake about that. We’ve got the oldest club (Sheffield FC) in the world here, the oldest ground (Hallam FC) and the oldest set of rules. That’s just the start of it, the list is endless. I could go on but I won’t.”
Despite the fashion for downplaying their significance, you will never hear Wilder claim derbies, particularly those against Wednesday, are simply about the points. Indeed, as he takes a trip down memory lane, recounting stories about his own derby experiences, it becomes apparent United’s players have been briefed, in minute detail, about what is at stake.
“For some it’ll be their first derby and we want to make good memories for our supporters,” Wilder, who turns 50 today, smiles. “You’d be daft not to look at the fixture list when it comes out and identify when we play Sheffield Wednesday. Whether it’s supporters talking in the boozer or at home, because there’s still mixed families, this is what they’re bothered about.”
Wilder knows all about the rivalry between United and Wednesday. After all, it is in his blood. Having spent long periods of his youth on the terraces at Bramall Lane, Wilder spent seven years there as a player before completing a remarkable hat-trick when he took charge last summer.
“I think right through the week, Wednesday supporters will be talking about certain games where they’ve turned us over, they’re not going to be talking about games where they’ve got beat, and vice versa,” he continues. “So that’s for the past but we’re here; me as my first Sheffield derby as manager and a lot of the players in their first Sheffield derby. They’ll want to make their own history for the supporters and they have an opportunity to do that.”
With home advantage and back-to-back play-off campaigns behind them, Wilder concedes Wednesday are favourites. But matches of this nature have a habit of producing unexpected results. United, who won the League One title last season, are confident they possess both the character and camaraderie to upset the odds.
“I certainly don’t think we’ll get bullied and we’ll be committed,” Wilder confirms. “But you’ve got to marry both things up, it’s no good playing with that mentality if you make bad decisions when you get the ball. There has to be a desire, a work ethic, a commitment and competitiveness about your play. If you don’t win enough tackles, headers and races, you won’t get the ball. Those are the things any team has to be good at if they want to win matches. And we’ve shown that we can.”
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this encounter is that United and Wednesday are very different teams. While his counterpart Carlos Carvahal can make multi-million pound signings, Wilder’s success has been built on an eye for unsung but gifted talent.
“I think, if you look through the history of both clubs, it changes. They’ve had poor times and we’ve had poor times with results. It’s all about now. We have constructed a squad to get the maximum amount out of what we’ve got available. Times are good. The supporters recognise what we are all about.”
Wilder, though, insists United’s down-to-earth approach does not mean they lack ambition.
“My sole focus is making sure we re-establish ourselves in the Championship but of course you need goals and reaching the top division of English football has to be our one. How long that takes is defined by investment and other people’s decisions. But I’m not going to shout about getting into there when we’ve only had eight games in the Championship after so long out.”
United, despite spending six years trying to regain their second-tier status, were the last club from Sheffield to compete in the Premier League.
“We all want to see this game and we want to see it at the highest level,” Wilder says.
“No doubt it. But, to be honest, I’m only interested where Sheffield United are. I don’t think many Sheffield Wednesday fans had sleepless nights when we weren’t in the Championship. I don’t think they care too much about us and vice versa. People outside would love to see top-flight Sheffield derbies but this is an important game for the city anyway.”