The little known weekly Premier League ritual that means Sheffield United's Chris Wilder and Jurgen Klopp of Liverpool have probably already settled their differences
The pre-match handshake might be a little firmer than usual. More of a Chris Morgan style bone crusher than friendly embrace.
But a little known ritual involving all 20 Premier League managers means that two of their number, who earlier this term became embroiled in the type of needless and nonsensical row English football excels at, will have enjoyed ample opportunity to repair their relationship by the time they meet in person again at Bramall Lane on Sunday night.
Three months have passed since Chris Wilder and Jurgen Klopp, his Liverpool counterpart, crossed swords over the urgent and, given the nation was trying to plot a course through the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic at the time, extremely topical issue of how many substitutes top-flight teams should be allowed to employ. Klopp wanted five. Wilder, aware that Sheffield United do not boast the deepest of squads, insisted they should stick with three. In the end, after the matter was put to a vote of competition members, a compromise was brokered. Clubs were allowed to expand their benches. But not increase the number of changes they could actually make during games. Cue the type of Teutonic explosion not seen since the Exchange Rate Mechanism Crisis, with Klopp accusing Wilder of being “selfish” in public and probably a whole lot worse in private.
Although all eyes will be on the pair when the reigning champions visit South Yorkshire this weekend, as mischievous journalists look for any sign of tension, they are already likely to have thrashed out their differences. Together with the likes of Aston Villa’s Dean Smith and Ralph Hasenhuttl of Southampton, the next two opponents on United’s fixture calendar, Wilder and Klopp regularly attend a weekly video conference which provides an open forum for those working at the highest level of the game to air their opinions, thoughts and views on a variety of subjects.
It also, Wilder admitted ahead of this eagerly anticipated fixture, acts as an unofficial arbitration panel in the event of a dispute.
“There’s a few pleasantries and a few not so pleasantries,” he laughed, describing how the Zoom sessions usually unfold. “A few bouts of silence. Everyone has the ability to say something, and then it’s educational for us, from a serious point of view.
“We do adapt and change. The message is, it’s changed and things will change going forward because of the severity of what’s happened. But we all have a chat and it’s a great thing to be a part of. I think everyone looks forward to them.”
Although it was described as a war of words by some, the exchange between Wilder and Klopp was actually anything but. After revealing his position on the great substitution debate, Wilder maintained a diplomatic silence as his opposite number at Anfield railed against a decision he claimed put the health of footballers at risk and chucked a series of hand grenades in the 53-year-old’s direction.
Predictably, social media was awash with the type of reasoned and insightful analysis one has come to expect in such circumstances with some followers of the two clubs taking up the cudgels on their respective managers’ behalf.
A huge admirer of Klopp and proud of the fact they were supposedly on such good terms, Wilder is understood to have been genuinely puzzled by the reaction his refusal to back the 53-year-old’s motion provoked. But he still plans to invite Klopp and his staff to take part in another custom he holds dear - the post-match drink. Indeed, so great is the importance Wilder places on the tradition, one suspects he has stocked-up on Helles specially.
“It’s a sit down and a chat, people are open and really honest, it's a great experience,” he said. “The ones we’ve had right the way through, I think it’s good. I love that part of it. It shows we are all after three points and a result.
“They, other managers, know how difficult it is. We’ve had that battle and been fierce competitors with our teams. But you know what, that’s when we put it aside and shake hands on it. I enjoy people coming in, they will always get an invite. Regardless of what goes off, I will always go in. Go in and empty their fridge.”
Given that professional sport is an arena where self-centred behaviour is positively encouraged - even viewed as a prerequisite for those hoping to reach the top - it was initially surprising to see Klopp take umbrage at Wilder’s stance. But, given the disparity in resources across the division, a row of this nature was probably inevitable. United, now bottom of the table and 14 points adrift of safety with only 13 games remaining, have recently struggled to fill their bench thanks to a growing injury crisis. Liverpool have also seen their squad ravaged by fitness issues but, as Wilder relies on untested talent from the Steelphalt Academy to bolster his options, Klopp was able to name six internationals among his replacements for the Merseyside derby against Everton.
Still, Liverpool’s options are depleted with Jordan Henderson joining Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho, Joel Gomez and James Milner on their casualty list. Likely to be without all three of his first choice centre-halves, together with Sander Berge, Jack Robinson and Jack Rodwell, Wilder’s sympathy will be limited. But, given the furore his words caused last Autumn, he could be forgiven for choosing to gloss over the issue when he addresses the media tomorrow. United have enough distractions to contend with, without engineering any more.