MANAGER Chris Wilder believes facing Leeds United in a Yorkshire derby is the perfect game for Sheffield United to reignite their play-off ambitions.
Back-to-back televised defeats to Aston Villa and Wolverhampton – and a record of just two Championship wins in 13 outings – have left the Blades five points adrift of the top six.
Tomorrow, for the third consecutive match, the TV camera, and the national spotlight, will be on the Blades as they host Leeds in a lunchtime kick-off at Bramall Lane. Wilder is hoping a Yorkshire derby in front of a sell-out crowd can help kick-start a Blades surge.
“We do take the role of the underdog and I think that’s a fair one to give us considering it’s our first season back in the division,” said Wilder. “We’ve had to win some big games and, hopefully, we can do again.
“But I know, just looking at the players, they are ready for this. There won’t be any backward steps there.
“The last two results have been disappointing, but there were lots of positives performance-wise.
“We’re not out of form, it’s not scratch your head time thinking we need to change this or that. It’s about getting back to doing what we do best; being on the front foot.
“We’ve been talking about the end bit, being a bit more clinical, that and making people defend a little bit more. Make sure we put the opposition on the back foot,” said Wilder, looking for a league double over Leeds, after David Brooks scored the winner at Elland Road in October.
Wilder comes up against a familiar face in Paul Heckingbottom tomorrow after the former Barnsley manager replaced sacked head coach Thomas Christiansen at Elland Road this week.
Although Wilder has been impressed with Heckingbottom’s start to life as a manager, he may refrain from his usual pre-match pleasantries.
“I’ve been thinking about this,” smiled Wilder. “When we go into the referee’s room beforehand we always say ‘best wishes and best of luck’.
“Then, I leave thinking, ‘well not really.’ So I probably shouldn’t be doing that, I shouldn’t be saying it. I think I’m going to just shake hands from now on and then see what happens afterwards.
“I’m not going to be kicking any water bottles at him. We’ll have a drink before and after, well after if you know what I mean.
“His record has been outstanding at Barnsley. He’s been touted for a lot of big jobs and I don’t mean that disrespectfully to Barnsley because they’ve done great.
“One thing is that Paul can spot a player and can work with players. He improves them as individuals and as a team.
“You try and get the maximum out of what you’ve got at your disposal. We’ve tried to do that. That’s the key at every level of football, what your resources are, what your facilities are, make sure you get the best out of that.”
Yorkshire trio Blades, Middlesbrough and Leeds are among a chasing pack trying to gatecrash the play-off places.
The next three weeks will be key if Wilder’s side are to secure the chance of back-to-back promotions.
After tomorrow’s game with Leeds, they face four teams – QPR, Hull City, Reading and Burton Albion – who are all languishing in the bottom half of the Championship.
“This is a season-defining set of fixtures and we’re positive we can come through them,” said Wilder.
“We’ve got some massive games coming up and the boys will attack them, as they have all the way through. The teams at the top are pushing, the teams at the bottom are fighting for their lives and there’s teams like us pushing to get in there.
“If you win a few on the bounce, like Fulham and Preston have, then you get right back in there.”
The Blades have been boosted by the return of on-loan goalkeeper Jamal Blackman after time spent back at parent club Chelsea for rehab on a muscle injury.
With No 1 Simon Moore suspended tomorrow – after his red card at Wolves last weekend – the Blades were left with just rookie Jake Eastwood.
The 21-year-old Academy product came on at Molineux after Moore’s red card, but has yet to start in the Championship.
Wilder will assess Blackman after training today, but has backed Eastwood – who has been training with the first team – to grab his chance if selected.
“It was disappointing that we lost Jamal in training. It always is when that happens, a training injury,” said Wilder.
“He’s quickly recovered and we knew he’d come through. We’ll look at him and if there’s no reaction on Saturday morning, we’ll flip it.
“We’ll give him every opportunity of being available.
“Jake has been involved and when we’ve got finishing sessions, pulling off unbelievable saves, his performances have been fantastic.
“That’s why we’ve offered him a new deal because we feel he’s a fantastic prospect going forward. The lads see him every day and they know how good Jake is.”