Chris Wilder is hoping his Sheffield United players will want to stay and be part of something special if any of their Premier League rivals try to whisk them away in January.
Wilder jokes that his team’s best chances of being in Europe are for an end-of-season holiday in Magaluf, but with the fixture list hitting the halfway mark after Boxing Day’s game against Watford, they are in the first Europa League spot.
That form has seen the penny drop – at least in some quarters – that there must be some quality players, and coaches, at Bramall Lane. So as much as the Blades are looking to add to their squad in January, there is also a danger of losing key figures.
“If I get a call off 75 per cent of clubs in this division, possibly more, there will be a better deal out here for my players but hopefully they look a bit deeper than that,” said Wilder.
“We had a situation with David (Brooks) a couple of years ago where we were going into our second Championship season and a Premier League team (Bournemouth) came calling. It is difficult when the big hitters try to take your players away but we’re in a good position as a club. I’m grateful for the work (chief executive) Steve Bettis, Carl (Shieber, the head of football administration) and the board do backing me as a manager.
“There’s no director of football, no negotiations, no one’s going behind my back to move players on, which is how I want to manage and make right decisions on behalf of the football club.
I’m sure the players are happy to be here, you can see that at the end of games. I’d never want to keep an unhappy player here and, if there was, then we’d look to protect the football club.Chris Wilder
“We want to keep our best players and we want to build and move forward.
“I’m not worried, about people looking at our players. It’s part and parcel of the division, it’s something you have to handle. They are all under contract.
“I want to drive the club forward and make that next step.
“Lots of things have to happen for a deal to come off but I’m sure the players are happy to be here, you can see that at the end of games. I’d never want to keep an unhappy player here and, if there was, then we’d look to protect the football club.”
The squad has quietly evolved since its League One days, meaning many of the players have been together for some time. Wilder is looking to further strengthen by adding “two or three” players when the transfer window opens on New Year’s Day. Free agent Jack Rodwell has been training with the club this month, and Everton’s former Barnsley defender Mason Holgate has been talked about as a potential option for central defensive cover.
The Blades have only lost one game in 11 but there will be no stopping to pat themselves on the back and no taking opponents for granted. Bottom-of-the-table Watford are in South Yorkshire on Boxing Day buoyed by Sunday’s first win under new manager Nigel Pearson, at the expense of Manchester United.
“The boys have done great but you can’t pat yourselves on the back in this game,” said Wilder. “You just can’t do that.
“Europe might be an end-of-season trip, probably to Magaluf. You used to see 20 or so teams out there at the end of May.
“Watford are a team that creates chances. They don’t create half-chances, at Anfield they created proper chances. I thought they were quite unfortunate and they got their reward for a positive performance against Manchester United.”
With John Fleck back having missed Saturday’s win at Brighton and Hove Albion through suspension, Wilder can expect a full squad to choose from on Boxing Day. Luke Freeman came in for Fleck on the south coast, and with Lys Mousset rested from the starting line-up, his replacement Oli McBurnie scored the game’s only goal.
“We’ve had selection headaches right the way through the season,” said Wilder. “We made a change on Saturday and obviously Lys was disappointed but you saw his attitude when he came on, wanting the change the game. That’s why we’ve had the consistency, because of that attitude, wanting to push.
“Luke, in a slightly different role to the one he had at QPR, has adapted so well. Ben (Osborn, a substitute at the weekend) has impressed all of us.
“One of the big messages to people is that they can’t drop off. It is tough for people not in the team, having to come up here (to the club’s Shirecliffe training complex) on a Saturday in the wind and the rain, not being out there in front of 30,000 people.
“But they will do it and they have to do it because they are professional footballers.”