Sheffield United enter tomorrow’s game against Millwall ninth in the Championship table and only three points behind Neil Harris’ side who occupy the fourth and final play-off berth.
The situation is a far cry from the one Chris Wilder inherited when he was appointed manager 23 months ago, with United facing challenges both on and off the pitch as they prepared for a sixth straight season in the third tier of English football following a forgettable season under his predecessor Nigel Adkins.
Ninety-nine games and a promotion later, Wilder’s 100th match in charge of his hometown club could see them take a huge step towards earning a shot at the Premier League.
As the 50-year-old prepares to reach another career landmark, The Star analyses five things which have improved since his return to Bramall Lane.
1) PLAYING STYLE: Wilder has built a squad on the principles of hard work, attitude and absolute dedication to the cause. Although this is reflected in their approach to games, which sees United look to attack the opposition rather than feel their way in, they also play some eye-catching and intricate football. This style reflects the culture of the city, the personality of the club and, perhaps most importantly of all, engages and invigorates the crowd.
2) RELATIONSHIP WITH SUPPORTERS: Arguably the greatest change under Wilder, and perhaps his greatest achievement yet, has been how United’s crowd have embraced the team. Too many United managers spoke about the challenge of playing at Bramall Lane in negative terms, seemingly viewing the pressure of pleasing a big crowd as something to be scared of. Wilder’s mentality, even when his reign got off to a slow start, was radically different, insisting it should inspire rather than intimidate. Players were signed or retained on their ability to understand this message. Contrary to popular belief, football supporters are not fickle or hard to please. In fact, if a team reflects their desire and love for a club, they can actually be pretty easy to satisfy. No matter what the result. The United fans’ response to the half-time whistle at Oakwell earlier this month, when they encouraged their team despite a disappointing first-half display against relegation threatened Barnsley, proved this.
3) TRANSFER DEALINGS: United’s league position, despite their modest budget, demonstrates how intelligence can trump money in the transfer market. John Fleck, Mark Duffy and Jack O’Connell, three of the club’s best performers this season, were signed for nothing, nothing and a relatively cut-price fee. Other new arrivals, including John Lundstram, have taken longer to settle in but are now producing the type of displays which suggest they will become valuable assets and key figures in United’s squad for seasons to come. This will save United money in the future, enable them to grow as a team, preserve the club’s identity and improve their balance sheet. In short, United’s recruitment policy now takes care of the short, the medium and also the long-term.
4) CONTRACT SITUATION: The power, when it comes to buying and selling players, has now shifted back to Bramall Lane because of the coaching staff’s readiness to reward good work with new deals. Again, with transfer fees spiralling out of all control, securing the futures of their best players is a prudent move. It also means United, for the foreseeable future at least, should not find themselves in a situation where a whole host of players are set to become free agents at the same time. The board of directors’ role in this must also be recognised.
5) FORMER PLAYERS: Some managers view former players as a threat, particularly those who enjoy ‘legend’ or ‘cult-hero’ status on the terraces. Wilder, however, values both the fact they still want to attend games and their opinion. It is often said a society should be judged on how it treats its old people. The same can be said of football clubs too. Bringing ex-players back on board, embracing their thoughts on the game, fosters a sense of identity, history and place. It also, providing their thoughts are communicated properly, helps establish a brains trust for Wilder and his staff to call upon when required. If it is good enough for Bayern Munich, it is good enough for others too.