IT WAS feisty in the Sheffield United dressing room in the aftermath of an uncharacteristic collapse at Villa Park. Manager Chris Wilder loved it.
There seems little doubt that if his players need to find that sort of character when the Blades face Aston Villa again on Saturday, they will.
Of the three sides who came up from last season’s Championship, Wilder’s has impressed the most with their combination of determination and skill. They needed the former after going 1-0 down to the 2019-20 second-tier champions Norwich City last week, and thanks to plenty of the latter came through with a 2-1 victory.
It ensured the defeat at home to Newcastle United remained a one-off. Responding to adversity is something the Blades have done well – individually in careers usually forged the hard way, and collectively in rising up the pyramid. Their unwillingness to settle for less was on full show in February.
With eight minutes to go, the Blades were cruising, 3-0 up through a Billy Sharp hat-trick. The match ended 3-3.
It didn’t go over the top. Words were said and there were a few actions too. It was a disappointing end to what was on the whole an outstanding performance from us for 85 minutes.Chris Wilder
“It was rough in the dressing room afterwards but it was good, it’s what football’s about,” said goalkeeper Dean Henderson.
“It was an interesting 25 minutes in the changing room afterwards,” laughs Wilder with impeccable under-statement. “I stepped foot in it after about 15 of them and it was quite lively, quite interesting. It didn’t go over the top. Words were said and there were a few actions too. It was a disappointing end to what was on the whole an outstanding performance from us for 85 minutes.
“But we used that as a springboard for another decent run (seven matches unbeaten) which ultimately gained us promotion.”
Henderson’s error opened the door for Villa that day so it says a lot for the mindset, or perhaps the masochism, of the 22 year-old that he describes the game as “fantastic for me personally.”
“It was a kick up the backside and made me come back stronger,” explains the 22-year-old, on loan from Manchester United. “For the side it was a disappointing one. We battered them and to get a sucker punch wasn’t nice but it made us and our season.
“I still believe it made us get promoted, all the boys think the same.”
Henderson is typical of the mentality Wilder has fostered at Bramall Lane. It is no place for the faint-hearted. Wilder is shrewd and self-confident enough to have gathered a group that can police itself, most already dragged up through football’s school of hard knocks. His secret is perhaps not trying to do too much.
“I said it about (Bournemouth winger David) Brooks when he was here, I didn’t do an awful lot of work with him,” insists Wilder.
“We talked about bits and pieces but a boy has to work and want to improve, in how he lives his life and the stuff he does. It’s the same as Harry Maguire (now the world’s most expensive defender at Sheffield United).
“We were always here to help in terms of clips etc but there has to be an acceptance, a will and a desire to raise their game. Our players have got that.
“You have to cultivate that and work hard to create that environment but then let go and trust it.
“Sometimes you have to step in but if you’ve got good characters and leaders, we’re all after that.
“Especially for us and where we’ve come from, we have to have a united changing room and we’ve certainly got that.
“I’ve got a huge amount of respect for the skipper (Billy Sharp). It’s been a little bit of a struggle for him because of the form of others but he’s come into his own as well. He could quite easily bang my door down and talk about what he’s done for the football club and why he should be playing or say, ‘I need to be off,’ but he puts his football club before himself.
“He’s one of a number of leaders we have.
“It’s not always done in the classroom or on a screen, for the majority of time it’s about being in that training session and the demands other people put on them and how they handle them.
“Players have to cope and survive because if they don’t they won’t carve out a career.”