But Richard Stearman has different take on Chris Wilder’s post-match diatribe at Millwall, describing it as something which will boost, not break, his bond with Sheffield United’s squad.
“We’re professionals and we know when we don’t perform well,” he says. “We didn’t there and the manager certainly let us know. When we don’t hit the same standards it’s only right that we’re told so it was entirely justified.”
Much to his obvious frustration, the dressing down Wilder performed at The Den was still the talk of Shirecliffe when journalists descended upon United’s training complex earlier this week. Four days on and 48 hours before tonight’s visit of Bristol City, the 50-year-old wanted to discuss all the good things his team have achieved this season rather than relive, over and over and over, events following its 3-1 defeat in London. But because they were brutally honest, because so many of his peers believe players should never be held publicly to account, Wilder’s comments about conceding “c**p goals” and “getting ahead of ourselves” still dominated the narrative. Stearman is delighted his manager is not a dedicated follower of footballing fashion.
“Obviously they can’t tell you everything they’re thinking. It’s his job to make decisions, not ours, that’s what he gets paid for, But it certainly helps you build up a relationship with a manager if you know they are telling you the truth. If you suspect they’re not then, on the flip side, it makes it a lot more difficult.”
Despite the notion that getting too close to players can cloud a manager’s judgement, joining Ipswich Town on loan five seasons ago taught Stearman a balance can be struck.
“Ours is really straight-forward and I think that’s brilliant,” he says. “Another manager I had like that was Mick McCarthy, who was very straight-down-the-line and you knew exactly where you stood. That’s how you build up a good relationship with a manager, through that trust. I value that really highly and I think he (Wilder) has got that same quality as Mick.”
“If you have that relationship, it gives the players a few extra per cent to want to run through a brick wall for the guy in charge,” Stearman continues. “They think less of simply looking after themselves and more about the team and the manager himself. You can see from the great team spirit we have here that they boys want to play for this manager and that can be massive within a club in terms of succeeding and picking up points.”
Despite taking only one from their last three matches, United remain fourth in the Championship table. City, one place above them in third, are hoping to complete a hat-trick of wins in the competition following victories over Hull and Middlesbrough. Wilder, who could welcome back George Baldock from injury, has every reason to feel bullish about his side’s prospects given they have lost back-to-back matches only once since this time last year. But given City’s threat on the counter-attack, coupled with evidence that opponents are becoming wise to United’s style of play, coaching staff will be desperate for the defender to declare himself available for selection. Both Millwall (63 per cent) and Birmingham (69 per cent) have gifted United possession and looked to hit them on the break. Wilder’s men, who scored once in both of those outings, enjoyed less of the ball against Burton Albion and Hull but, hitting the target a combined total of seven times, finished with maximum points. Lee Johnson, the City manager, will tempted to emulate Neil Harris and Steve Cotterill by instructing his side to sit deep before surging forward on the break.
“I think it falls on the senior players to help the younger ones bounce back,” Stearman, aged 30, admits. “We’ll take it upon ourselves to keep policing the dressing room and helping the manager out. It’s something we do really well here and our sense of togetherness is right up there with the best I’ve seen in my career.”
Stearman missed three of those four fixtures as he fought to regain his place following a hamstring complaint. But the centre-half, previously of Leicester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, cites his personal duel with Jake Wright to underline the argument.
“I have been on the flip side when he has been playing when I’ve not,” Stearman, who replaced Wright at Millwall, says. “I thrive on being a leader and trying to help out others. Looking further along the line, it is something that I may look to step into, going forward. As it is now, Wright is the same as well, with helping each other out and being able to talk to each other in terms of being in or out of the team, helping the player in your position to perform well. It is a common goal, we are all trying to succeed and there’s no point being selfish about it.”
Whatever the result tonight, United will still be able to spend the weekend reflecting upon an impressive start to the campaign. Having won promotion at a canter last season, their presence in the play-off positions confirms huge recruitment budgets, despite providing an obvious advantage, are no cast-iron guarantee of success.
“There’s a lot of big names and big clubs that maybe aren’t performing as well as they’d hoped with the money that they have spent,” Stearman says. “Teams that possibly haven’t spent as much or the budget isn’t quite as big are performing better. You can put that down to a team spirit, work ethic or togetherness or possibly a manager that they believe in. Again, it’s all about that bond.”