MANAGER Chris Wilder has challenged his Sheffield United team to go into next week’s Steel City derby as Championship leaders.
The Blades host neighbours Sheffield Wednesday at Bramall Lane a week today, and are clearly the team in the ascendancy in Sheffield.
While United were beating Wigan Athletic 4-2 to go top of the Championship – thanks to Billy Sharp’s hat-trick – the Owls were slipping to a third successive defeat, 3-1 at Birmingham City.
It opened up a 10-point gap between United and Wednesday in the Championship heading into tomorrow’s action.
With Leeds United, Middlesbrough and Norwich City – the latter the visitors to Hillsborough tomorrow to face Jos Luhukay’s side – all sat two points behind the Blades, Wilder knows victory at Nottingham Forest can keep United at the summit.
“We want to go into that game (against Wednesday) top of the division,” Wilder told The Yorkshire Post. “If we win on Saturday we are top of the division going into that derby game. That’s got to be the aim.
If we win on Saturday we are top of the division going into that derby game. That’s got to be the aim. Saturday will be a tough game, and all our focus has to be on that game.Chris Wilder
“Saturday will be a tough game, and all our focus has to be on that game.
“It’s a great week ahead. Two fantastic games for us.
“I really enjoy going there (City Ground). I did as a player and do as a manager. It’s a proper football ground, right in the city.”
In terms of financial outlay, United are trailing Forest and Wednesday – and arguably two thirds of other Championship clubs.
But that illustrates the impressive job Wilder has done to transform the Bramall Lane club’s fortunes.
“These are two clubs where we are really going in as underdogs, especially Saturday we should be going in as underdogs,” admitted Wilder.
“The only way other people will view us as favourites is the way we are playing and the points we have collected.
“But any other times we would be going to Forest they would be big favourites. They have been in the division a long time, with the players they have got.”
With Wilder and Sharp lifelong Blades fans, they are more aware than most what a Steel City derby means to the footballing fraternity in Sheffield.
“The players will no doubt know the derby is coming up, in terms of ticket requests from everywhere,” he said.
“You have not spoke to someone for six months, and you have to deal with that.
“That’s part and parcel of us living in Sheffield, and being brought up as we are.
“We all understand it’s just round the corner, but I think the players are experienced enough to know Saturday is just as big a game and we want to win it.”
The challenge facing Wilder and United this season is to maintain their promotion challenge after hitting top spot.
Last season they beat Burton Albion on November 17 to top the Championship, but were unable to keep pace with the front-runners, finally finishing 10th.
The loss of midfielder Paul Coutts – whose season ended with a broken leg at Burton – was a key factor. Wilder has added depth to his squad over the summer despite operating with far less financial muscle than many of his rivals.
It is why he does not put much merit on being tagged as “underdogs” or “favourites” as the Blades defy the budgets to set the pace in the Championship.
“Underdog or favourites, everybody will have their own opinion on that,” he said.
“Sometimes you have to look a bit deeper. When we played Hull City, they have got a tremendous amount of talent in that group and invested heavily over the last three or four years.
“You come up against big talented squads who have spent a lot of money.
“We have gone about it our own way. If we are favourites I don’t see any arrogance in us, or taking the foot of the gas – they are not allowed to – and I don’t see it hindering us.
“It didn’t hinder us last year. People will have their thoughts about what happened to us last year, but for me it was quite a simplistic view.
“We weren’t strong enough in terms of our squad, and we didn’t produce enough big moments. The stats all added up, the distance run, chances created.
“From my eyes the results weren’t as good compared to the first part of the season, but a lot of the other things were just as good.
“We have to keep doing what we are doing, and hopefully a strengthened squad and more big moments will make us better than we were last year.
“We are in the position we are, accept that, and handle that. If we have got a target on our back it’s because we have been playing well and winning games of football.”
The Blades – without defender Chris Basham tomorrow due to suspension – are hopeful that John Egan (hamstring) and Mark Duffy (hip) will be fit to return at the City Ground.