Chris Wilder has been back at Sheffield United for a matter of days but it is fast becoming apparent which skills and traits he is going to rely upon to try to drag his boyhood club out of the mire at the bottom of the Premier League.
For a side with one league win, United gave a good account of themselves in Wilder’s return to the Bramall Lane dugout on Wednesday, putting in a spirited showing against Liverpool in a game not decided until the final seconds. Wilder knows more than most, though, that with a five-point gap between the Blades and safety, time is of the essence. A festive fixture list including Aston Villa and Manchester City after Saturday’s opponents, Brentford, does little to offer hope of a miracle turnaround.
Wilder will strip things back to their roots in an attempt to salvage the situation – even if things above his pay grade have contributed to the predicament the club find themselves in. On Friday Wilder repeatedly discussed the priority to restore the connection between players and supporters that he feels has ebbed away of late. A son of the steel city, Wilder will use his experience of a club he calls his own to try to galvanise his players.
“It’s a powerful force and helps players play to the best of their ability,” Wilder said. “There’s a mentality in both the city and the club when we’ve been up against it. We relish that fight and we’ve got to use it to our advantage. I believe the supporters turn losses into draws and draws into wins here.”
Wilder spoke effusively about his time in the lower leagues with Northampton and Halifax as a player and a manager when he was part of squads that were not being paid and were in a far more serious situation. It is clear he has shared these kinds of stories with his players, and he has chosen to instil belief in his group rather than overload them with information.
“I don’t want to sit through videos for two or three hours and bore the arse off them, because you’ll lose them,” he said with a smile. “I have to make that shirt as light as possible for them to wear but they’ve got to believe in themselves.”
Wilder delivers the message of hope and belief well, but he has inherited a club with problems. He acknowledged on Friday that his squad lacks experienced – his starting XI in midweek had an average age of 24 years and 239 days, their youngest in a Premier League game since 1993. It may not be a squad that needs major surgery but it certainly requires improvement – and that means eyes gravitate towards January, with Wilder insisting plans are under way for transfer business. But again, that comes with an element of uncertainty.
United’s owner, Prince Abdullah, is still believed to be open to selling the club but said on TalkSport this week there were funds for Wilder in January – if they remain in the survival picture. It is far from the ideal backdrop for a manager with such a devilish run of fixtures ahead, but Wilder is driven by his bond to his club. His challenge is to pass on that fire and passion to a youthful playing group and he insists he returns armed with the right experience, as well as the right passion.
“Sheffield United are getting the best of me now,” he said. “It was an up-and-down time at Middlesbrough and I’ll let you make your own minds up about what happened at Watford, but you certainly learn from those experiences. Maybe because of the situation we’re in people expect us to float away: ‘Off you go, back to the Championship.’ Well I’m not going to accept that. The season certainly hasn’t finished. There’s still a little bit of fight and life in Sheffield United.”
Wilder said on Friday that the reception he received on Wednesday from the Blades supporters ranked “right at the top” of his moments in football. If he keeps his boyhood club up against the odds with everything happening behind the scenes, there can be no doubt that would supersede anything else he has achieved.