The first sign Chris Wilder saw things differently to Nigel Adkins came long before he took charge of his first training session, friendly or competitive match.
Within hours of taking charge, and unwilling or unable to wait for Bramall Lane’s handymen to act, Sheffield United’s newly appointed manager was spotted prowling around behind the scenes with a screwdriver in hand.
Wilder’s mission, other than revitalising a club which had slipped into a stupor, was to remove the placards bearing motivational messages which had sprung-up throughout the ground during his predecessor’s reign.
The message was clear: Players should not require pearls of Native American wisdom to persuade them to give their all. From now on, that would be a prerequisite.
Tonight, twenty-one months after Adkins’ departure and Wilder’s arrival, the two will finally come face to face when United visit Hull City. Of vital importance to their respective teams’ campaigns, this fixture is a clash of style, tactics and personalities although, as he finalises the South Yorkshire club’s preparations, Wilder is determined to portray it as anything but.
“There’s a bigger picture. They want to win to stay in the division just as much as we want to win to try and get out. There’s obviously a connection but there’s bigger issues in terms of the points. I don’t think our supporters, players or staff will be looking at the opposition bench and think it has anything to do with the game. I don’t think Nigel and his staff will be looking at us thinking the same thing. They’ll just be trying to get a result to try and get out of the position they are in.”
Wilder has enjoyed almost unparalleled success since replacing Adkins at the helm. Having delivered the League One title at the first time of asking, United travel to East Yorkshire seventh in the Championship and unbeaten in 17 Yorkshire derbies. Adkins, who guided them to an 11th placed finish during his only season at the helm, was offered a route back into football by City in December but, until now, has been unable to halt their slide down the rankings. They enter the match 20th in the table, above the relegation zone on goal difference.
“We just won’t under-estimate the opposition and what they’ve got,” Wilder continues. “It would be foolish to do that and we are not experienced or established enough in this division to take that approach. Even if we were, I just wouldn’t allow it. That’s not what the game is about.”
Despite dismantling the squad he inherited from Adkins - Billy Sharp and Chris Basham were the only players who featured during Tuesday’s victory over Queens Park Rangers to appear under both - arguably the most powerful catalyst behind United’s resurgence is the rapport Wilder enjoys with United’s support. A lifelong supporter and former player, his ‘up and at ‘em’ attitude is perfectly suited to the club and borne from the knowledge that two of its other greatest managers - Dave Bassett and Neil Warnock - both adopted a similar approach. Adkins, whose hiring was greeted with almost universal approval in June 2015, lacked that understanding and appreciation of United’s history. A decent individual who tried his damnedest, the former Scunthorpe, Southampton and Reading chief’s uber-positive outlook quickly began to grate with fans who prefer plain-speaking to analogies and micro-analysis. Particularly when they are not married with positive results. The change in mood at the Steelphalt Academy, even when Wilder got off to a tricky start, confirmed United’s playing staff were of the same mind too.
“The players are relaxed and they’re going about it in the right way,” he says. “They’re showing no fear and enjoying the challenge. That’s what I want them to do; enjoy it. When you’ve been here for a period of time, with the downs, this is the time to enjoy it.”
“I don’t look at it in any other way than we have to respect the opposition and expect them to bring their best game to the table,” Wilder adds. “So we have to be right and bring our best game to the table. We have to use what we’ve done, produce the same type of performances, going forward to win matches. The boys are in a really good place and the spirit is fantastic.”
Adkins and Wilder do boast one thing in common, though; a fascination with the science of the game. Where they differ, however, is how the information they glean from statistics, spreadsheets and tactical seminars is relayed. Wilder prefers short, sharp messages underpinned by humour. Adkins, according to some of those under his tutelage at the time, advocated Powerpoint presentations. One vehicle is not necessarily better than the other. But it does provide an insight into their characters. It is a theory Wilder underlines as, before boarding the coach for the short journey north, he dismisses concerns United’s push for the top six could be derailed by fixture congestion.
“Players would rather play then listen to me and Knilly (assistant Alan Knill) boring the a**e off them Monday to Friday wouldn’t they? They’d rather be out there than training.”
United triumphed 4-1 when City, then managed by Leonid Slutsky, visited South Yorkshire in November.
“There’s no getting away from the fact they (Hull) have got some real quality in the group,” Wilder says. “Some seasons it just doesn’t click or go for you. They’ve changed manager and maybe the off the field stuff isn’t great. But that ultimately doesn’t 100 per cent affect things all the time, on the pitch. They’ve got good enough players to compete at the top of the division. When we beat them earlier this season, we beat a really good group of players. Momentum one way can go the other too. We possibly know that more than any other club in this area.”