The secret of Sheffield United's success, according to Chris Wilder, is revealed
Their supporters celebrated survival when the final whistle blew.
Around 30,000 people had their tongues planted very firmly in their cheeks.
Because Sheffield United, and there is no longer any point in even whispering it quietly, are now dreaming of achieving a great deal more than that.
This win, over an AFC Bournemouth side whose threatrics were better suited to Broadway than Bramall Lane, lifted Chris Wilder’s side to fifth in the Premier League table with only 12 games left to play. The picture might change slightly during their sunshine break in Dubai. But make no mistake, United are contenders for European qualification. And remarkably, after only securing promotion 10 months ago, serious contenders at that.
The reason, Wilder insisted afterwards, is good characters.
Calibre is a given at the highest level at the game. But reminding how scorers Billy Sharp and John Lundstram have responded to seeing their places come under threat, the United manager provided an insight into both the personality and the temperament of his extraordinary squad.
“It speaks volumes about these lads,” Wilder said. “Because when you sign players, or keep people at the club, you’re looking to sign and keep good people as well.
“You want ambitious players. You want ones who can overcome disappointment and are selfless. You want ones who can face up to challenges.
“Of course they have to look after their own careers. There’s always a time for that.
“But then you want to keep bringing in good players for another reason. Because it makes the others grow and get better as well.”
Wilder was active during last month’s transfer window, with the likes of Panos Retsos, Jack Robinson, Richairo Zivkovic and of course Sander Berge, now the most expensive player in United’s history, among his acquisitions.
But two well-known faces, who have suffered their fair share of frustration of late, made the difference here.
After Callum Wilson had fired the visitors in front during the opening exchanges, Sharp dragged United level following a scramble in the box before Lundstram, with Berge again preferred in the starting eleven, stepped off the bench to convert the contest’s decisive goal. Another substitute, Lys Mousset, provided the assist for the midfielder’s effort against his former club.
“The skipper (Sharp) has found game time hard to come by,” Wilder, who until recently had used the centre-forward sparingly, acknowledged. “It’s easy when you’re playing. It’s easy when you’re scoring and Billy has scored so many goals and played plenty for us.
“Now, it’s a different type of test. Not that I want to put him through a test, but it is.
“He showed his reaction. I thought him and Oli McBurnie were outstanding up top. They gave their centre-halves a really torrid afternoon.”
Turning his attention to Lundstram, Wilder went on.
“John, in his last two appearances, has been outstanding as well. He’s stood up and been counted. He’s shown he wants to get back in there.
“Lys as well. He’s seen Richairo come in and he’s seen David McGoldrick come back into training. But he has shown what he’s all about, what his attitude is, as well.”
To begin with, as Eddie Howe’s side weaved pretty patterns across the pitch and caused problems with their movement, Sunday’s fixture proved to be a test of United’s durability.
Particularly when Wilson pounced. But as the afternoon wore on, it became one of patience too as Bournemouth, who remain rooted in trouble towards the foot of the rankings, demonstrated an expert grasp of football’s more embarrassing and infuriating arts.
Harry Wilson, who blocked shot had led to the opener, was left writhing in supposed agony nearly every time he was touched. Philip Billing, despite having the stature and physique of a heavyweight boxer, seemed to have the punch resistance of a flyweight. When Dan Gosling went down poleaxed following a John Egan challenge, Wilder’s patience snapped.
The 52-year-old, who is old enough to remember the days when footballers actually pretended not to be hurt, found himself embroiled in a touchline spat with Andrew Surman which resulted in both being shown yellow cards. It was a shame because Bournemouth, with some wonderful talents at their disposal, are much better than that.
Wilder’s respect for Howe prevented him from saying so but, when Lundstram completed the comeback, he must have felt United had struck a blow for good sportsmanship as well as their own Europa League hopes. Fourth-placed Chelsea, who occupy the final Champions League berth at present, are only two points better off; albeit with a game in hand.
“There’s things in this division I’m still getting used to,” Wilder said diplomatically. “But I won’t talk about that.
“All we want to do now is keep getting better. Because that’s the mentality of everyone in our group.”