Sheffield United showed again that when they are slow out of the blocks, manager Chris Wilder can push them to greater things.
Hours before Friday night’s 1-0 win over West Ham United, it was announced Wilder and his assistant, Alan Knill, have signed new contracts which will take them until the end of the 2023-24 season.
The Blades have an option to extend that by another year, which would mean nine in charge of the club Wilder grew up supporting.
Were that to happen, such longevity is almost unheard of in the modern game, but goalscorer Oli McBurnie revealed the manager’s impact on a victory which put the promoted Blades back in the Premier League’s top six.
“We weren’t necessarily at our best on Friday but we were still in the game and the gaffer came in and gave us a little kick when we needed to step it up in the second half,” revealed McBurnie, who became the Blades’ record signing in the summer, but who has had to be patient this season.
“We know we’ve got extra gears we can always move up to and that’s what we did in the second half. I think that’s why we got the win in the end.”
It was not the first time it has happened this season. In October’s reverse fixture, the Blades trailed to Robert Snodgrass’s goal after a poor first half, but turned it around to claim a 1-1 draw in the second. They were poor in the opening 45 minutes at Norwich City in December, but turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win after Wilder gave them some home truths.
“We know if we’re still in a game there’s a lot more we can give in the second half, especially if we’ve not played our best up to then,” commented McBurnie, who justified his ninth league start of the season at the expense of top-scorer Lys Mousset. Four-goal McBurnie is now only one behind the Frenchman.
McBurnie has played in the Premier League before, with Swansea City, but the step-up to playing for the demanding Wilder with his unusual style of play is still a big one.
“Training is tougher than anything I have ever experienced,” admitted the Leeds-born Scotland international. “It’s really intense, like a game. That is something I had to get used to.
“Those first couple of months (after his £20m move from South Wales) were a bit of a shock to my system but I feel a lot more ready now.
“There is a lot of graft at this place and – touch wood – it is working, 100 per cent.
“You can’t argue with the methods. This club has been doing them for the last few years and you only have to look how energetic the boys are. It is all down to what we do behind closed doors.
“We knew we weren’t great in the first half against West Ham and we just had to get to half-time and reassess how we’d been. That’s what we did and in the second half we came out with a different mentality and got the result.”
In truth, Sheffield United had a lucky escape as for once the video assistant referee came to their rescue.
They fully deserved their lead – McBurnie pouncing on a poor pass from substitute goalkeeper David Martin – for the way they started the second half but needed an excellent save from Dean Henderson, in front of England manager Gareth Southgate, to preserve it.
In stoppage time, former Leeds United and Hull City winger Snodgrass scored what he thought was his third goal against the Blades (he also has a red card in those matches), only for it to be ruled out when defender John Egan headed the ball onto the hand of midfielder Declan Rice before he picked out the Scot.
For the club which has had most decisions go against them since this season’s controversial introduction of VAR to the Premier League, it was a huge relief.
Wilder spoke of his sympathy for David Moyes, whose winning run since taking over the Hammers on December 30 was brought to an end. Even after the final whistle, Sheffield United’s manager is an impressive figure.