The important point manager Chris Wilder is determined to make ahead of Sheffield United's big Premier League return against Aston Villa
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“I thought we were here to talk about Aston Villa,” Chris Wilder barked, in response to a routine enquiry about Europe. “Are we going to discuss that? Because that’s all I’m bothered about. I’m not looking beyond what is going to be as tough a match as anything else during the run-in.”
Sheffield United’s first press briefing of the Covid-19 era was a strange experience. Wilder was cross-examined via Zoom. Journalists raised ‘virtual hands’ before posing their questions. The transcript - or sections of it - were then shared with an array of overseas rights-holders,
But the thrust of Wilder’s conversation, the point of the exercise from the United manager’s perspective, remained unchanged from the days when everyone still met in the flesh.
Yes, his team might be in the Champions League conversation. Yes, a win will see them climb to fifth. But woe betide anyone peering past Wednesday’s trip to the West Midlands - the first contest to be staged in England since the fixture programme was suspended in March because of the pandemic.
“Seriously, the only thing on my mind is Villa and trying to get a result there,” Wilder continued, noting the opposition are not short on incentives to perform either as they battle for survival.
“We’ve got some incredible challenges in front of us and Villa is going to be a different challenge to facing Chelsea, Spurs, Wolves and Leicester. But trust me, because of the circumstances, this one is going to be just as tough as any of them. It’s going to be as difficult as they come.”
The circumstances Wilder was referring to have been well documented over the past few weeks, when it emerged the campaign would be completed rather than decided on sporting merit.
The contest will take place behind closed doors, with supporters not expected to be allowed back until the beginning of next term at the earliest. Unbeaten in six when the shutdown was first announced, United have also lost the momentum they had been able to build-up.
Although Wilder conceded the break in competition came at an unfortunate moment for United - “You know me, I’m not going to try and spin it” - Villa’s take on the situation is probably different.
Having slipped to 19th in the table after losing five in a row, Dean Smith will have welcomed the opportunity to regroup, regather and, in the case of injured midfielder John McGinn, rehabilitate one of his most influential performers ahead of the crucial run-in.
“I’m not going to sit here and say I wanted the season to pause in the way it did,” Wilder said. “We were on a great run. Everyone has got their own situations with injuries and form and such like, so sometimes a break might come at the right time for a team.
“Listen, I’m not speaking for Dean but I know what I’d be thinking if I was sitting here in his position. He’ll probably say it’s a great time for getting people back fit, to take at the team and to try and kickstart their season.
“Listen, it (Villa) is a brilliant club and I’ve got a lot of respect for Dean and what he’s done at his hometown club - the changes he’s hard to come in and make there. Genuinely, I think how much he’s had to do goes under the radar a lot of times.
“He’ll believe this break can get them going again. It would always have been a difficult game for us and it still is so, in that sense, nothing changes.”
United triumphed 2-0 when Villa travelled to South Yorkshire in December, with John Fleck scoring twice as the visitors failed to muster a shot on target.
Afterwards, having praised Smith and coach John Terry for congratulating his players on their display, Wilder insisted United were beginning to “change perceptions” about their prospects after being promoted from the Championship eight months earlier.
Now, rather than being talked about as certainties for relegation, United are viewed as serious top four contenders. They are also in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, which offers a route into the Europa League, where Arsenal are next on the agenda.
“We’ve done as much as we could have done as a football club, with the staff and the players, to give ourselves the best opportunity of producing a decent performance,” Wilder said. “But we’ll only know at 6pm, when the ball gets rolling, how it’s going to go.
“The attitude of the lads has been excellent throughout and I’m not surprised by that. But every manager will tell you, whether they go in for kidology or not, that we’re in the same boat with regards to actually knowing where the levels of our boys are at.”
“We always had great belief the season would restart but it was difficult when there wasn’t an actual date,” Wilder added. “From a tactical point of view, we won’t lose too much in terms of how we play, but physically it will be tough. Everyone though, is in the same boat.”