A side rightly lauded for its refreshing – and successful – football last season has been threatening and in some cases rewriting the history books for all the wrong reasons in 2020-21. Inevitably, there has been criticism, individually and collectively, some justified, some not.
Now, though, after a fourth win in five matches at Manchester United on Wednesday, the smiles are back and Wilder was in a jovial mood at his pre-match press conference.
The trick now will be maintaining it in the face of the footballing battering a trip to new Premier League leaders Manchester City, who have won their last 11 matches, threatens to inflict, and turning it into more results.
It certainly seemed to work that way in reverse before manager Wilder used the FA Cup to lift spirits at Bramall Lane.
“If you’ve been in any of our social-distanced meetings we have talked positively about deserving to be in the Premier League but understandably when you keep getting done by the sucker-punch in the 89th minute against Leicester, the 90th minute against Leeds, two in five minutes against Wolves, the penalty situation and sending off against Villa, it (confidence) is going to take a hit, whether you get beaten convincingly like we have done at Chelsea, Southampton and Spurs or whether they’ve been incredibly tight situations,” reasons Wilder.
“When you walk off that pitch and you haven’t got that result, that’s going to hurt you. It has hurt my players and I’m delighted it has. I’d like them to have got a little bit more reward from those games but they’re going to take a hit in their belief and confidence, as they’ll hopefully gain from what happened on Wednesday night.”
What happened on Wednesday night was the Blades beat the team who went into the week top of the table, in good form and on the high of having knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup. If Kean Bryan putting the visitors 1-0 up was a shock, particularly given his side were without eight injured players and the suspended John Egan, many would have expected normal service to resume once Harry Maguire equalised but, undeterred, Oliver Burke secured a 2-1 win with his maiden Premier League goal.
It was only the Blades’ second league win this season in their 20th match, two games after the first. The contrast with last term is huge, getting off the mark in game two (after opening with a draw), and holding Chelsea to a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge in game four.
“I keep reflecting on last season, the belief we got from our big result at Chelsea, the first big win we had against a top side, Arsenal (in October), and what that did for us,” says Wilder. “There were the big moments I keep boring you about – at Bournemouth (Billy Sharp’s 88th-minute equaliser in the opening game), our big moment at Chelsea, our big moment against Arsenal.
“If we had got a big result earlier (this season) it would have helped us. Hopefully we will take lots out of what happened at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
“But it can’t be a one-off if we want to make it uncomfortable for the teams above.
“I’m not thinking all of a sudden we’ve cracked the code.”
Egan’s suspension allowed a rare start for former England international Phil Jagielka, shining a light on what the centre-back brings to the club. When it is politely suggested the 38-year-old is in “the autumn of his career”, Wilder shoots back: “Christmas Day isn’t it?!”
“There’s no downside to having that knowledge,” he continues. “He’s not sat in my office 24/7, the majority of the time he’s sat in the changing room with the players – socially-distanced with his mask on – talking to them and because of his approach and his personality, he’s approachable. He’ll be passing stuff on.
“He’s not lecturing, he’s not dictating, but he’s been in the process of playing in the Premier League and at the highest level for his country so his experience is always great for those that want to listen.
“Some might not want to, which is their choice, but I think we’ve got more that listen than not because of what he is and what he’s about.”
Jagielka’s nous has been added to a team that revels in having its back against the wall, which is certainly where it finds itself, 10 points adrift of safety.
“There’s all sorts of words and sayings – pride, respectability, nothing to lose,” reflects Wilder. “We can say all these things but we’ve got show it.
“At times we’ve not been good enough or let ourselves down but you don’t change your identity and your outlook from a team that cares and gives everything over four-and-a-half years (the time Wilder has been in charge) to one that doesn’t give a toss. I’ve never seen that.
“It’s still an incredible challenge and everything’s stacked against us.
“Possibly the only season where we didn’t have it was the season in League One where the team had been favourites for six years to get out of it and not done it and that’s a different challenge but one we enjoyed and thrived on. Ever since then it has been that at different levels.
“Whether we enjoy it or not, we’re a fighting group, I’m a fighting manager. We always believe if a team drops their guard maybe we can land that punch and do a bit of damage.”
At this stage that is all it is, but at least Wilder’s players are showing signs of getting back into the fight.
United’s February fixture list has been confirmed. After hosting West Brom at 6pm on Tuesday, they are at home to Chelsea on 6th (7.15pm), Bristol City in the FA Cup at 7.30pm on 10th, travel to West Ham United on 15th (6pm) and Fulham on 20th (8pm). They complete the month with the visit of Liverpool on 28th (7.15pm).
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