SHEFFIELD uNITED manager Chris Wilder’s first utterance in his pre-match press conference yesterday told a story.
Before talk had even turned to Sheffield United’s opponents Middlesbrough, the Blades boss – with a delightfully mischievous sense of timing – said: ‘We have got no chance, have we?”
You would struggle to find a more streetwise manager than Wilder, who has metaphorically turned straw into gold at places such as Halifax, Oxford United and Northampton Town.
He, like most, knows full well that money gives you a considerable advantage in reaching the destination which you crave.
He also knows games are won by groups of committed individuals who work for each other, and not by pound notes.
Games are not won on paper either as Wilder was quick to point out yesterday.
Perceptions can skew reality. Many might expect Boro – who have spent an eye-watering amount in excess of £40m so far in this transfer window with more deals in the pipeline – to be comfortably too strong for the Blades.
Today’s visitors are a side who have just returned to the second tier and whose summer recruitment has largely revolved around shrewd lower-division raids on sound players and characters, rather than the real Championship deal.
But ask those who know their football about the match’s possible outcome and they might perhaps suggest otherwise.
More especially given the fact that the expensively-assembled Teesside squad are clearly a work in progress, whereas the Blades are a tight-knit and settled group who back themselves, possess a winning mentality.
But it did not stop Wilder getting that early quip in yesterday – an indirect dig at those who feel that money is the be-all and end-all in the pursuit of footballing success.
Wilder, whose Blades side have won their last nine competitive matches, said: “We have got no chance, have we? But we will go up there and give it a go. It is a great opportunity and a free hit for us.
“It is a complete turnaround for them and for us, in terms of the expectation. We were always the favourites last year.
“But at the end of the day, it is a game of football.
“Maybe a slight advantage is that we are possibly a little bit more settled in terms of our shape and our team. How much that counts for, we will find out when the game gets underway.
“But they have got a lot of quality, when you look at their transactions. There’s a lot of things that will have to go our way to get a result, we totally understand that.
“But games aren’t won on paper or on names or statures of clubs. They are won on the pitch.
“If they are better than us, then they will win and will have deserved that. If we are better than them, then maybe we will.”
In terms of expectations this season, the ones on Teesside are crystal-clear and were declared openly and unequivocally by Boro chairman Steve Gibson earlier this summer.
His statement was an eye-catching one, assuring Boro’s supporters – sore after a desperate 2016-17 campaign when the club went down with a whimper – that the club would ‘smash the league’.
It remains to be seen if Boro achieve that lofty aim and there will be plenty of rival fans who will use it as a stick with which to beat Gibson should they fail.
Wilder is unlikely to be one of those and as a football man, he recognises – regardless of whether people agree with Gibson or not – that he has earned the right to make those comments, given his emotional and financial commitment to ‘his’ club for the best part of three decades.
Wilder said: “Everybody recognises in football that he is a really good chairman to stick by that club – his hometown club – and do what he has done over the years through ups and downs.
“So it is not really for me to comment on what he says. Peter Beagrie was my pal and he was one of the first signings here when I was a kid in 1986-87 when he came for about 25 grand when they were locking the gates up there.
“Now you go up there and look at the training ground and academy, and they have been in the Premier League, Europe and have got a top ground. That is all down to the chairman, obviously.
“You look at what has happened there over the past couple of months and he (Gibson) wants to get back there.
“Who is to say, with the new manager, they won’t get back up there.”
Former Leeds United head coach Garry Monk is the man Gibson has entrusted with piloting Boro back to the top flight at the first time of asking and while the sudden exit of the 38-year-old certainly stung all those at Elland Road, Wilder – offering a perspective from the outside – was not too surprised.
Even allowing for the obvious attractions of working at a club armed with considerable bundles of parachute payment money and well positioned to make an immediate pitch for the Premier League, Wilder believes that working with Gibson will have been the ultimate reason that tipped the scales in terms of Monk moving up the A1 to Teesside.
Wilder said: “I was not surprised. He has gone from a brilliant football club historically, which they (Leeds) are even though they are a rival, but possibly the most volatile in the Football League, to probably the safest – even though the chairman has made big decisions and has got massive ambitions through what he has done and is doing now.”