MANAGER Chris Wilder last night challenged his Sheffield United side to usher in a new era of dominance in the Steel City derby by inflicting “more pain on our fiercest rivals”.
The Blades, a dozen points clear of Wednesday in the Championship table, will tonight look to complete a notable league double over their neighbours in front of a sold-out Bramall Lane.
Having been apart for the past five seasons due to United languishing in League One, the resumption of hostilities this term was always going to make these contests big highlights in the Yorkshire football calendar.
But the resounding manner of United’s 4-2 triumph at Hillsborough last September together with Jos Luhukay becoming the first manager to make his bow in this fixture have added further intrigue and excitement to the 142nd instalment of an increasingly bitter conflict.
“This never has been any other game,” Wilder, a lifelong fan and former player before becoming manager, told The Yorkshire Post. “Never has been, never will be whether that is for the manager, the players or, more importantly, the supporters.
“There is no denying this is a massive game for everyone concerned. We can’t kid our supporters that this is just three points. We do not approach it like that. They might change their tune now (after what happened at Hillsborough), but we have known all along this is bigger (than a normal fixture).
“This is a chance to do the double, to inflict more pain on our fiercest rivals. This is a chance to keep our momentum going in terms of the (promotion) challenge.
“There has been a hell of a lot of rivalry over 100 years or so. It has swung one way and then the other. For me, along with the need to win games of football and improve league positions, the aim is to swing the momentum in this city back to us.
“There has never once been a dominant force here. You might get one playing second fiddle for a while, as we were for six years. But I want them to be chasing us now.”
A glance at the league table illustrates just how contrasting this season has been for tonight’s combatants. Where even a draw in front of the live Sky cameras will be enough to take the Blades back into the play-off spots, defeat would leave Wednesday six points clear of the relegation zone and anxiously waiting to see if that gap would be narrowed tomorrow afternoon.
Luhukay, named as Carlos Carvalhal’s successor a week ago, has been working hard to rebuild confidence and implement his own ideas on the Owls’ squad.
Double sessions on the training field have been mixed with team meetings as the Dutchman, a promotion specialist in Germany after taking three different clubs into the Bundesliga, looks to get his reign off to a positive start.
“It is a special game for everyone,” said the 54-year-old former Hertha Berlin and Borussia Monchengladbach chief. “Derbies are special.
“I had derbies in the Netherlands as a player and also in Germany (as a coach), fantastic derbies. Maybe it is the same (in Sheffield) and I bring to England what I learned in Germany.
“We have a lot of respect for United, but I have respect for every opponent. They have a good position in the league. We lost the first one so we need to change the situation.
“We spoke about (the September defeat) and the players don’t have much confidence. But this is special and I am happy we have this game.”
Luhukay, understandably, was not giving too much away in terms of how Wednesday will approach tonight’s derby. “I don’t want my colleague (Wilder) to know what I say,” he added.
But Wednesday will be hampered by an injury crisis that means the likes of Gary Hooper, Tom Lees, Steven Fletcher, Kieran Lee, Barry Bannan and Sam Hutchinson will all be absent for the short trip across the city.
As for Wilder, he has gleaned as much as possible about how Luhukay operates, but with one important caveat for his players.
“It is about what we do,” said the 50-year-old. “Whether it is Wolves, Bristol City or whoever, we have gone for it in every game. We have dominated some really good teams, home and away. Nothing will change in our approach.
“Of course, we have done some research on their new manager and what his teams have been like. We have had a look at clips of his teams and his preferred formations.
“He has played a lot of 4-3-3 in his career along with 4-2-3-1. I don’t know if they will go for it, whether they will sit back and invite us on or whether they play three at the back and match us up.
“He rarely plays centre-halves, but what they do is their business.
“Take all formations and everything else out of the equation by being good. We must take the game to them and get the result.”