A FEARLESS front-foot approach has put Sheffield United within striking distance of the play-offs – and Chris Wilder has no intention of changing his style with the finish line in sight.
The Blades have been turning heads all season with the attacking intent that has seen them confound the critics who expected the League One champions to struggle on their elevation to the second tier.
But with just six games left to play and no sign of United relenting, Wilder spoke with confidence ahead of what could be a defining week in their bid to secure a place in the end-of-season play-offs.
So much confidence in fact that he sees his side as being a ‘dangerous’ prospect for much more vaunted and seasoned Championship operators, an opinion he believes rival managers will share.
“I think we’re a dangerous team going into the last six games,” said Wilder, who is seeking a third successive promotion, and second with United.
“There’s a lot of teams up there that are tipped to be in the play-offs but we’re playing well, so we just need to keep driving it forward.
“And I think the other teams look at us and see a dangerous side.
“They don’t watch these games and see a team that’s struggling, or look at us as a surprise package. They’ll see us as a team deserving of our position and playing well.
“They’ll see us as a decent team, a team that’s together and one that can go and hurt you and win games of football.”
That aura they have built will be crucial in the coming seven days.
Enjoying the challenge, wanting to prove people wrong, wanting to establish players who haven’t played in the Championship, giving them a chance to make a career for themselves in the Championship.Sheffield United manager, Chris Wilder
United visit relegation-threatened Barnsley today – a side in crisis on the training ground – when that front-foot approach will be key to playing on fragile nerves at Oakwell.
Then they have two home games in which Wilder’s belief in the status of his play-off-chasing side will be put to the test, against Middlesbrough on Tuesday, followed by Millwall on Saturday.
At present, just a point separates Middlesbrough in sixth and the Blades in ninth, with Millwall sandwiched in between on 62 points, the same as United.
That could have been two points better had Anthony Pilkington not thrust a dagger into the hearts of Bladesmen with a stoppage-time equaliser for Cardiff City on Easter Monday.
That setback hurt Wilder as much as any in his time at the club, but it also strengthened his belief in his team’s ability to last the course.
“I’ve got a lot of contacts in football and I’m grateful for the messages that we’ve received after the Cardiff game,” said Wilder, who was encouraged by his side’s attacking performance that night.
“People said we’d played ever so well, and that backs up my belief in this group of players that we can win games of football in this next month.
“In the long run, that’s how I want to see us play and we’ve got to keep playing like that.
“Our punters aren’t mugs, they know we’re on the right track, I know we’re on the right track.The two fixtures over the holiday period were two of the toughest of the season and for us to come out of those, still in touch, fills me with belief that we can play a part in the end-of-season activities.”
So if the Blades have no intention of fading away, what has kept them in the hunt for so long?
What have been the key ingredients to a sustained promotion challenge from a side that no-one fancied?
“Enjoying the challenge, wanting to prove people wrong, wanting to establish players who haven’t played in the Championship, giving them a chance to make a career for themselves in the Championship,” said Wilder, who gave the impression he could have gone on extolling the virtues of his side for the entire press conference.
“Team-ethic-wise we’ve got something good going here. We’re rising to every challenge that’s put in front of us as a group of players and staff together.
“We’ve overcome any hurdle put in front of us and we’ve continually done that. Sometimes we’ve taken a couple of steps back but generally after those we’ve come roaring forward.
“A lot of people told us how scary a division it would be coming up, so we needed to get a foothold quite early on and we managed to do that and I think we’re full value for our position.
“Quite a few people that have followed us this year might think, we could be a little bit better off in our league position.
“The question now is can we force our way in? That’s our ambition and that’s what we tell the players, that they have the opportunity and the ability, if we hold our nerve, to drive this forward into the next six games.
“It’s a life-changing opportunity for everybody.”
When Wilder arrived at Bramall Lane to take the reins of a club he supported it was one that was going nowhere fast after a mid-table finish in their fifth season in League One. Now, of course, they are dreaming of the Premier League.
It all started last season with their 100-point title-winning campaign in League One and the momentum has snowballed.
“Enjoy the big occasions and play fearless football,” he said of the lessons learned from last season’s run-in when the title and a points record was on the line. “In terms of the approach, it’s been front-foot, as it was over the weekend. We took backward steps in both games (Cardiff and Brentford) but we never showed signs of this league being too much for us. We’re enjoying it and really going after games.
“The players are enjoying the challenge, just as they were last year, full tilt right to the end and the approach will be just the same this time.
“We’re a team that plays on the front foot and goes after the opposition from the start, home or away.”
At which point, Wilder threw in a rare cautionary note. “Whatever happens this year we’ll learn from it and bridge that gap,” he said.
No-one in the Championship would bet against them doing so.