Improving Blades are finally warming to Wilson

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IT MAY have been in a losing cause, but the 2,700 Blades fans in the Jimmy Seed Stand stood in unison to applaud a dogged performance against the runaway league leaders.

There was the standard rendition of Sheffield United’s take on John Denver’s Annie’s Song – that homage to Magnet bitter and greasy chip butties – but also, more tellingly, a chorus of appreciation for the manager, Danny Wilson.

After all, the single-goal defeat to Charlton Athletic was only the eighth of his tenure – set against 22 wins in all competitions – and with the Blades sitting the breadth of a Woodbine cigarette from an automatic promotion place and an appetising FA Cup fourth-round tie with Birmingham City to look forward to this weekend, things are looking bright again.

It was late May when Wilson arrived to a storm of furious protest at Bramall Lane, his connections both as player and manager with bitter rivals Wednesday inexcusable in the eyes of many.

But the unflattering shouts from outside which drowned out Wilson’s unveiling as manager now seem a distant echo as an immediate return to the Championship comes into ever sharper focus for the club.

In fact, Wilson is enjoying life at the Lane so much, he said in the build-up to today’s match that it is the “biggest and best” challenge of his career.

Has the manager finally won round his dissenters?

“I’m not sure I can repeat all of the song from last week,” said Wilson. “But there’s certainly quite a difference from day one, when I came into the club.

“I’ve said all along that the results on the pitch will determine whether people will take to you or not.

“Our performances have been very positive and the fans are enjoying themselves at the moment.

“To them, the club always comes first and when you come in as the manager, especially when you have a background like mine, you’ve got to convince them.

“It’s alright talking about things, but you’ve got to go out and do them. This is the biggest and the best challenge I’ve had in my career.

“When you see the players training well and playing well, it gives you real pleasure.”

As United jostle with Wednesday and Huddersfield Town in pursuit of Charlton at the League One summit, Wilson might have been forgiven for viewing the Birmingham game as something of an unwelcome distraction.

Not a bit of it – such is the confidence at the club right now, not to mention Wilson’s enduring romanticism about the FA Cup, that he looks forward to each and every challenge.

Unlike the majority of fixtures this season, the Blades will enter the game as underdogs against a Birmingham side who, under manager Chris Hughton, have enhanced their reputation as cup specialists.

It was Alex McLeish who guided the Blues to the Carling Cup back in February, their first major silverware in nearly 50 years, and Hughton’s side have taken up the mantle, as shown by their valiant performances in the Europa League and in overcoming local rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup third round.

But Wilson sees no reason to fear a side who also currently sit sixth in the Championship.

“I don’t see the game as a distraction,” he said. “I’m delighted we’re still in the Cup and I’m pleased that we have the home draw that we asked for.

“We go into the game in very good form, the defeats have been few and far between of late.

“But Chris Hughton’s team are in good form as well, so I’m looking forward to it. Birmingham will be tough to beat, but I believe the game is winnable.”

Suggestions that United’s enduring presence in the Cup – today’s tie has meant the postponement of a home league fixture with Scunthorpe United and, of course, has the potential for a replay – will result in the kind of severe fixture congestion that can ruin a squad and a season are dismissed. Competing on two fronts is “not a problem”.

Just as well, because United’s Cup record in recent seasons leaves a lot to be desired. They have failed to get beyond the second round of the Carling Cup for three seasons and the fourth round of the FA Cup for two.

United are bolstered by a clean bill of health ahead of the game, with long-term absentee Chris Morgan the only player on the treatment table.

Striker James Beattie, who committed himself to the Blades for the remainder of the season, serves the first of a three-match suspension for his altercation with Yann Kermorgant at Charlton last weekend.