Earlier this year, during an impromptu chat with Mark Duffy, Chris Wilder was troubled by some of the things he heard.
“I spoke with Duff when he first came in,” the Sheffield United manager admitted. “And he told me he’d found our ground a pretty comfortable place to come. That obviously couldn’t continue which is why, after getting this job, it was important to try and turn that around.”
Seven months after Wilder took charge of United and nine since Duffy helped Burton Albion amble to victory at Bramall Lane, things have changed. A stadium opponents, as the former Birmingham City midfielder revealed, enjoyed visiting last season is now among League One’s most intimidating arenas. Thanks, in no small part, to the high-tempo, aggressive tactics employed by Wilder and his staff.
“I’m not so sure that’s the case now,” Wilder, speaking at the club’s training complex last week, said. “We go into matches wanting to set the tone and the tempo. Then the punters will get behind us. I don’t think anyone who has come here recently, Swindon, Shrewsbury or even Walsall who did beat us, will tell you it’s easy to get a result. The atmosphere being generated is a big part of that.”
Repairing the fractured relationship between United’s first team squad and its supporters has, as the season approaches the half way stage, been arguably Wilder’s most important achievement so far. Second in the table and only three points behind leaders Scunthorpe, the 49-year-old’s team enters today’s game against Oldham Athletic knowing that, providing they give their all, the crowd will follow suit. Although cynics might dismiss Wilder’s words as populist clap-trap, he is adamant that breaking down the barriers between the pitch and the terraces has brought tangible rewards.
“I believe the belief from the supporters in the team is growing. I’ve said all along, they can help push us on and have been driving us forward. Without a shadow of a doubt. We all look at Championship attendances, then our attendances and then other attendances in the division. Nobody else gets close. So we have to maximise it and make the most of it. We’re strong when we’re together. I’m absolutely sure about that.”
United, who could be without Chris Hussey (hip) for the meeting with Oldham, have won eight of their last 10 outings on home soil. Duffy, one of 13 new players signed by Wilder during the close season, has scored three goals in his last five outings while Billy Sharp, United’s captain, will start the fixture searching for his 15th of the campaign. Statistics which will make unpleasant reading for Oldham as they bid to haul themselves off the foot of the division. But, Wilder warned, are no excuse for complacency.
“I watch a lot of other teams and, when they play us, they can be different beasts,” he said. “So we’re planning on Oldham bring their ‘A’ game with them. We’re ready for a real test.”