It was Monday morning when Chris Wilder first realised that, in all honesty, he had probably made a mistake.
Less than 48 hours after being beaten by Birmingham City, a result which provoked some scathing criticism from the Sheffield United manager, the response of his players after they reported back for training persuaded him to deliberate, ruminate and then perform a dramatic volte-face.
“It was a long weekend and a painful one,” Wilder admitted. “But the attitude has been superb. The lads, to be fair, have probably picked me up more than I have them. I made some harsh comments. But perhaps, on reflection, I maybe needed to take a step back.”
Despite withdrawing his remarks about the team’s fight and desire - which were both questioned following last weekend’s defeat - what Wilder can not change the fact that losing at St Andrews effectively ended its top six hopes. Five points off the pace with only two matches remaining, United now boast only a mathematical chance of achieving back to back promotions. But Wilder, whose reaction to the display betrayed the fact he is also a lifelong supporter of the club, still believes his squad deserves a rousing send-off when it contests its final home game of the season against Preston North End today.
The scale of United’s achievements since lifting the League One title last term are underlined by the fact that, not so long ago, Wilder believed finishing second was still a realistic target. The previous five clubs to claim it have, on average, spent 4.6 seasons in the division before mounting their promotion winning campaigns.
“These lads have given everything,” he continued. “They’ve given everything for me and for the club. To be fair, maybe they’re a little mentally and physically tired. I know people don’t like hearing that but I see the tremendous amount of work they’ve put in.”
Wilder’s pride stems not only from his side’s fearless approach to football but also, given United’s modest financial resources, the fact it has traded punches and landed plenty on big-spending opponents.
“We’re fully focused on putting in a really good performance and finishing off the home season on the front foot, which is the way we’ve played all through,” he said, denying coaching staff will be keeping a watching brief on results elsewhere. “We’ve had some big performances and the performances have not always got the results they have warranted. When I first came in, I said we needed solid home form and to enthuse the supporters. I think, if you’ve had a season ticket at Bramall Lane this year, you’ve had value for money.”
With Preston also possessing a slim chance of reaching the play-offs, Wilder is expected this afternoon#s fixture to be an exciting spectacle.
“We’ve always looked to take the shackles off,” he added. “That’s been consistent. We want to finish off here with a win. I’m desperate for the players to reward the supporters for the backing we’ve got. If I was a punter, I’d turn up and give the players a big push because I think they deserve it. I really do.”