WHEN questioned about Sheffield United’s forthcoming transfer strategy in January, Chris Wilder’s message is unequivocally clear.
For the second year running, his Blades side find themselves well placed in the play-off spots after a stand-out first half of the Championship season, but Wilder is in no doubt what is required to possess the best possible chance of lasting the course.
Namely, topping off a highly-capable and talented squad with some ‘finished article’ signings who, in his words, can ‘make a difference’ and will not just flesh out his existing options. Resting upon laurels is not an option.
It is why his shopping list of New Year transfer targets is likely to be a pretty selective one.
The Championship’s reputation as a league of tight margins where moments of quality count has been further reinforced by events in 2018-19, with the jockeying for position in the top six as intense as it has ever been.
So much so that the likes of Aston Villa and Derby County are not currently in the play-off positions, with the relegated duo of Stoke City and Swansea City not even in the immediate vicinity.
But the coded warning to those who occupy top-six places is that standing still in the January window is fraught with risk.
Wilder, whose side are three points and two places worse than off than at the same stage last season, said: “Players have to come in now and be able to make an immediate difference. They have to.
“I think we are fishing in a different pond now. We have to be because we need players who can make the difference and improve our squad and existing players.
“John (Egan) is a great example and has come in and raised levels. Ollie Norwood has also come in and raised levels.
“We will still look and explore different areas, like the David McGoldrick and Conor Washington scenarios. But we are identifying things in a different group at the moment to make us better.
“I always go back to Aston Villa last season and the Robert Snodgrass and Sam Johnstone scenario. I thought we were outstanding for the whole game, but their goalkeeper worked over time and was man of the match and then Snodgrass pops up with his left peg at the end and it is in the top corner for the only goal.
“Tight games are usually settled by a mistake or a moment of brilliance. That was one of those occasions when it was a moment of brilliance.
“We need to strive to get a bit more out of the lads. Hopefully January will allow us to make some tweaks, with two or three coming in and maybe a couple going out who have not been involved much. The idea is to make us stronger going into the second half of the season.”
In the here and now, Wilder is imploring the sixth-placed Blades to find their ruthless side in the run-in to the end of the calendar year, starting at managerless Reading, who sacked Paul Clement yesterday morning.
The Blades chief will no doubt recall how a lack of efficiency in the final third saw them downed in single-goal defeats to Bolton and Preston last December with two moments of quality from Gary Madine and Jordan Hugill – who both secured big-money moves in January – proving the difference.
United must also handle the ex-factor element tomorrow in the shape of former striker Marc McNulty, who scored his first goal for the Royals since his summer move from Coventry City in last weekend’s 2-2 draw with Stoke.
The Scot moved on loan to Bradford City for the first half of Wilder’s first season in charge – in the 2016-17 League One title procession – but despite continuing to be on the periphery when he returned, his positive input on a daily basis was duly noted.
The Blades chief added: “We looked at him and thought he would be part of that group, but he had decisions to make as well.
“We had Leon (Clarke), Billy (Sharp) and Matty Done was playing up front as well, together with Dominic Calvert-Lewin at the beginning of the season. He (McNulty) was around it for the second-half of the season. He was putting pressure on the likes of Billy.
“When players come in, it is always interesting to see the effect it has on other players. I think Ben (Woodburn) being here has lifted Mark Duffy. From Billy’s point of view, he had an unbelievable season. That was possibly aided by Marc being behind him.”
Tomorrow also promises to be a noteworthy day for another Reading player in Sam Baldock, who locks horns with his younger brother George, who will be in opposing Blades colours.
Wilder believes that the rivalry is likely to provide an extra spicy ingredient for both tomorrow – with club loyalty coming first.
He said: “I do not have a brother, but I have got to say, if I did, he would get booted. George is that type of guy as well. You must have the focus he has got to be doing what he has in his career.
“He has got to play well regardless of whether his brother is up front or his mum is up front. He would probably kick her during a game as well!”