Talking about how he coaxed his side’s best performance and first win since the restart, he explained: “Maybe they might have seen a bit of a softer side to CW”.
So there you have it, Chris Wilder has a softer side. His use of it this week has made tomorrow’s trip to Burnley a lot less daunting.
Sometimes footballers and managers get caricatured. Just as Sheffield United’s players would not be in contention to qualify for Europe without the technical skill to match their much-praised spirit and physicality, so Wilder would not be one of the Premier League’s best managers if he was all stick, no carrot.
Not since November 2011 had Wilder lost consecutive matches by a three-goal margin, but he remembered what to do.
The tone of the self-styled “results man” changed after defeat at Manchester United, highly critical of his team’s performance, but stressing he would judge them on how they played rather than the result in the FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal.
When they lost – unluckily, to a stoppage-time goal – he was as good as his word, playing up their improvement rather than dwelling on going out of the Cup. He was rewarded with a first post-lockdown win, 3-1 at home to Tottenham Hotspur, which moved them above Jose Mourinho’s team and back into the European place that was starting to look beyond them.
“Maybe they might have seen a bit of a softer side to CW in the days after the Arsenal game and maybe that was the time for me to do it,” reflects Wilder, whose side could have been in danger of feeling sorry for themselves after a wrongly disallowed goal at Villa Park, John Egan’s red card at St James’s Park and an injury to centre-back Jack O’Connell, since compounded by the news that John Fleck, John Lundstram, Luke Freeman and Leon Clarke have been ruled out for “a couple of weeks”.
“What the players have achieved so far this season has been incredible and they needed a bit of a lift,” argues Wilder. “It’s been really positive around the training ground. It got to a stage after the Manchester United game where it wasn’t too happy a place and you’re always looking for a recovery after a defeat and a poor performance. We’ve certainly gone about it the right way and the only way I see for us to do, which is getting your head down, being humble, affecting your own performance and looking at the next game.
“We did that against Arsenal and took it to another level against Spurs.
“Parts of Sunday, even though we wanted to get through to the semi-final of the FA Cup, I thought we showed glimpses and the spirit of the team has been good. It’s been not a great return for us in terms of performances and certain results so it was a big night for them on Thursday and I thought they showed everything we’re about.
“It was a Sheffield United performance in both boxes, aggressive in the middle of the pitch, trying to play when we had to with the organisation and the shape behind it. We needed to be better in the final third. We put a lot of good players under pressure and we got the balance of the game right.”
George Baldock was quick to point to Wilder’s part in the improvement.
“After Arsenal, he was delighted with us,” reveals the wing-back. “He said, ‘Don’t be too hard on yourselves, you’ve lost two Premier League games and the FA Cup quarter-finals narrowly, we are doing all right.’
“It hits us hard when we lose games, many don’t think much of it in the Premier League, but it means a lot to us. To respond like we did on Thursday was pleasing.
“I don’t think the table lies. We deserve to be where we are (seventh). We have stamped our mark on the Premier League this season. We don’t want to stand still.
“We say all the time, don’t get too high and don’t get too low. Before lockdown, we were being talked about as Champions League contenders. Then, we lost a couple and our bubble had burst. We don’t pay much attention to it.”
“It was important the players kept their self-belief because they were not amongst some of the country’s biggest clubs by fluke.
“The gaffer said he wasn’t going to rip the playbook up at the start of the season,” points out Baldock.
“He knows us inside out and he’s not scared to improve it. What he’s done is brilliant.
“It’s been brilliant we’ve been given the chance to repay his faith.”
But for all the niceness of this week, Wilder will be demanding a result at the end of it. As on Thursday, the team that comes out on top will be higher in the post-match table as games tick down.
“We took a step forward and the important thing now is to take another against Burnley,” stresses Wilder.
“If we can replicate what Burnley have done for four or five years, I’ll be quite happy, believe me. It’s been an amazing achievement for them to keep going and going.
“We’ve got to go there and take it on again there. We’ve played five already (since the restart) and the fixture list doesn’t get any easier – Burnley, Wolves, Chelsea, Leicester, Everton and Southampton. I’m delighted about that!
“But if we approach it like we did on Thursday, we’ve got nothing to lose.”
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