AS THE Sheffield United team bus nudged its way out of the car park at The Den in August, manager Chris Wilder sensed his players needed a lift.
The Blades had just lost to a stoppage-time penalty from Millwall striker Steve Morison and were rock bottom of League One.
Coming on the back of a miserable 2015-16 at Bramall Lane, a return of just one point from the opening four games suggested more of the same this time around. Enter Wilder with his man-management skills honed over the years he had brought success to a host of clubs.
“I got the driver to pull over at an off licence and bought £100 worth of beer,” said the 49-year-old to The Yorkshire Post ahead of tonight’s return against the Lions. “And then kept it all at the front.
“No, seriously, I am old school and could see the lads were down. They care. We had lost in the 93rd minute, but had played all right. They were down on that bus and I wanted to change the mood.”
Striker Billy Sharp, a lifelong Blades fan like his manager, was as surprised as anyone by Wilder’s response to his side crashing to the foot of the table. But, seven months on, he is also in no doubt as to the value of the gesture.
“The lads were really hurting on the bus and what the gaffer did was a great bit of management,” said the club’s 26-goal top scorer.
“I was surprised and the lads didn’t really know what to do. It could have been a test. But we had a drink.
“I then said something to the lads on the bus that they still cane me for now. I will tell you exactly what I said at the end of the season, but it was along the lines of, ‘We need to shake our heads and get some results because if the manager is giving us drinks after a defeat and one point from four games then imagine what he could be like if we win some games?’
“The manager is very fair and honest. If you do well for him, he rewards you. He is old school, but he has also moved with the times as well. That is a good mix and he is great to work for.”
Wilder’s honest, hands-on style of management is certainly paying dividends. United moved to the top of the table on New Year’s Day and, a couple of days in early February aside following a blank weekend, they have been there ever since.
Avenging Millwall’s 2-1 triumph in August with a 24th victory of the season will nudge the Blades seven points clear at the summit. Perhaps more importantly, it would also open up a 13-point advantage on third-placed Fleetwood Town in the race for automatic promotion.
“For me, that game at Millwall was the turning point,” added Sharp. “After the first few disappointing results, we got another one at Millwall. But, up until the last minute, we had done okay.
“A point at Millwall, which we had almost got, is always a good point.”
United’s ruthless pursuit of promotion under Wilder has helped banish the memories of last season and a final-day lap of ‘honour’ that Sharp admits did not sit comfortably with his winning mentality.
“Personally, I was embarrassed at the end of last season when we went out for a lap of honour,” said the 31-year-old, who, despite the Blades’ lowly 11th-place finish, still bagged 21 league goals.
“We had to give our thanks to the fans, but we had let the club down. This time, the gaffer has made sure we didn’t make the same mistake. He has done an amazing job in a short space of time.
“We had been so disappointing last season. So, when you start like we did, you do think, ‘Not again’. But the manager really has done an unbelievable job, especially after how we started. We were 12 points behind Bolton after six games, or something like that.
“But we have come a long way since then and if we can get over the line, it will be some achievement.”
The weekend draw at Oldham Athletic on a wretchedly poor surface extended United’s unbeaten run to 10 games. It also kept the Blades in pole position, somewhere Sharp, twice a promotion winner, believes is the place to be.
“I prefer to be top than chasing,” he added. “There is pressure regardless of where you are because you have to win games. That is the bottom line. But if we win all our games between now and the end of the season, we are champions and promoted.
“Oldham was tough. I have played on better Sunday League pitches than that one. They coped with it maybe a little bit better than us, but I thought we showed real battling qualities to get a point. If we can beat Millwall, it (Oldham) becomes a really good point – especially as, of the top six, we are the only ones playing (tonight).
“Psychologically, a win will be a big boost for us and a blow for everyone else.”
Last six games: Sheffield United WDWWWD Millwall WWLDDL.
Referee: J Simpson (Lancashire).
Last time: Sheffield United 1 Millwall 2; October 24, 2015; League One.