Newcastle United v Sheffield United - Chris Wilder braced for squad test
When the Blades restarted the 2019-20 Premier League at Villa Park on Wednesday, the vast majority of Newcastle United players and coaches will surely have been watching, out of curiosity as much as professionalism.
When the fixtures came out this time last year, a trip to Newcastle United’s cathedral on the hill was one of the games Wilder looked for early. The passion of St James’ Park in full voice is a special experience but tomorrow one of the Magpies’ great advantages is gone.
Such is Wilder’s way, though, he will be trying to stick as much as he can to his tried and trusted formulae. A Fifa rule change allowed him five substitutes on Wednesday to ease the pressure on players coming back after three months off and no proper “pre-season”. Wilder, who objected to the rule, stuck to the usual three.
“It’s a leveller, no crowd, of course,” he shrugs. “When the fixture list came out, Manchester United away and Newcastle United away were right at the top for me.
“I’ve always said do they (the players) get the extra yard, do they jump higher, do they jump further, run faster (with a crowd cheering them on)? I can only take my experience of playing big games at Bramall Lane and the effect it had on me from an adrenaline point of view.
“I’m not being critical of my players because I looked at Villa’s players as well, it wasn’t right up there. I don’t think it was for the want of trying.
“That’s why I was so looking forward to this game. I don’t think football is the No 1 thing in other Premier League cities but it certainly is for me, our supporters and our football club. It certainly is for Steve (Bruce), his football club and Newcastle.
“But I was an advocate of returning to playing and we have to adjust.
“We’ve had that first experience so we know what we’re going into but everyone else will quickly get that experience, so I don’t think it’s a great advantage. I think the greater advantage is Newcastle have had a few days to prepare.”
There are limits to how much Wilder wants to adjust.
Up to 13 games between now and the August 1 FA Cup final will test his players’ fitness in different ways. Until now, it has largely been about peaking once a week this season, and he has relied on a very small group of players.
Jack O’Connell had not missed a minute of Premier League football before colliding with Dean Henderson in training on Monday, and John Fleck was another unusual absentee in Birmingham. Substitute David McGoldrick picked up a heavy knock late in the 0-0 draw.
None have been definitely ruled out – at least not in public – but it shows the squad will be tested. It will be smaller too, with Muhamed Besic’s loan over, and one if not both of Panagiotis Retsos and Richairo Zivkovic expected to leave having not made the nine-man bench against Villa.
Premier League clubs cannot add to the 25-man squad lists submitted in February.
“In terms of injuries, we have to deal with them and use our eyes and the data to see if players are down or up and just manage them,” explains Wilder. “We’ve got a squad if there’s an injury, a suspension or we feel somebody needs to come out of the team.
“We’ll be flexible but nothing’s really changed in our attitude. If the team’s won and it’s playing well, I don’t feel there’s any reason to take a wrecking ball to it.”
Wilder insists there are no hard feelings towards loanees who decide not to risk the run-in, but there will be no tears either.
“We’ve had a couple of loan players who won’t re-sign and I understand that,” says Wilder. “They’ve got to look at their careers longer-term.
“But all of our main players that are out of contract and in that situation have re-signed.
“We need everyone pulling in the same direction. We can’t have people breaking the chain, not our players, not the way we play. If anyone doesn’t want to be a part of it, absolutely no problem.
“Mo’s not been with us for a month and it’s a decision regarding Panos and Richairo over the next 24, 48 hours in conjunction with the players.”
Jack Robinson made his Blades debut as O’Connell’s deputy on Wednesday, 3,343 days after his only other Premier League appearance, for Liverpool.
“It probably took a little bit of the pressure off, so I didn’t mind it with no crowd there,” he says. “But you want to play in the Premier League in front of big crowds against top players.
“The most we realised the atmosphere change was walking out. During the game you’re concentrating so much you kind of just blur all that out.”
The Blades had the unwanted distinction of the first controversy of the new age, when Hawkeye failed to spot what was plain to the naked eye – that Aston Villa goalkeeper Orjan Nyland carried Oliver Norwood’s free-kick over his own goalline.
Although Wilder did not rubbish the idea of Sheffield United’s board discussing legal action – we have been here before after Carlos Tevez relegated the Blades in 2007 – he is not one for on-field reparations.
“I’ve had nothing from the PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Limited, the body which manages referees),” he confirmed. “There was a statement from Hawkeye straight away and then I had a call from the Premier League, which I appreciate. But I wasn’t expecting Villa to let us score. That never crossed my mind.”
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