It has been an interesting week at Sheffield United, one that has brought the first whiff of despondency at the Lane since the first four games of last season, when United propped up the rest of League One with one point out of 12.
Always forthright, Chris Wilder’s comments after the defeat at Hull City made everyone sit up and take notice. This was Wilder at his most aggrieved, which we haven’t really heard previously. He has publicly criticised his players before, notably after the defeats at QPR and Millwall and even after the win at Leeds, but never anything like this.
By his own estimation Wilder was “away with the fairies” if he thought we could still make the play-offs, the players might have “maxed out” and he was not going to bother motivating them any more. We were not at the level required to make the top six, but we might have been had there been a bit more money to spend in the summer and January. Charged with finishing 19th or above, Wilder said he had done his job, the inference being that others had not.
Was this an over-reaction to a rare awful performance, or was there something more to it? Wilder denied he was playing mind-games, and when interviewed on Monday with two days to ponder what had happened he still sounded disillusioned, saying how he paid little attention to Saturday’s football when normally he is “all over it”.
There is the view that he was being cunningly calculated in what he said on Friday night. It was a double-edged challenge to his players and the club’s owners. Wilder was almost daring the players to show they are better than they showed against Hull. As we have seen many times, they are, but knowing their standards had slipped it was as if he was imploring them to take responsibility to ensure they did not coast to the end of the season in the knowledge that safety was guaranteed, and to prove that team spirit is more than just a couple of words.
More importantly perhaps, Wilder was giving a hefty nudge to the owners, whoever they may be in the next few months. Not necessarily asking for a bigger budget, he demands only clarity. He needs to know the club’s immediate and future plans, whether that be with the Prince in sole charge or with the incumbent shared regime.
And therein lies the rub. Without a satisfactory answer to this question, Wilder’s words and mood could be construed to indicate that he will consider his options at the end of the season. He’ll have many. It might be a stretch to think that a Premier club would want him, but there’ll be plenty in the Championship with more ambition (i.e. more money) than the Blades who would grab him with both hands. How United finish the season and how the ownership settles down will determine whether this scenario plays out. The win at Reading was a good start in trying to avoid it.