SHEFFIELD UNITED face a crossroads this summer and manager Chris Wilder wants to know which direction the Blades are heading.
Saturday’s frustrating home defeat to Preston North End –Alan Browne’s goal proved the difference – finally ended United’s slim play-off chances.
With defeat, Wilder was able to unleash months of frustration after watching from the sidelines as United’s joint owners HRH Prince Abdullah bin Mosa’ad Abdulaziz Al Saud and Kevin McCabe battled for control.
What looked a perfect match in 2013, the Saudi royal arriving to help McCabe – like Wilder, a staunch Blades supporter – has turned into a messy divorce.
That makes Wilder’s achievement in taking their promotion push until the 45th game of the Championship campaign all the more impressive.
But the 50-year-old knows if United are to progress and challenge for promotion next season unity in the boardroom is key.
After Saturday’s defeat – and with the Kop’s words of “Chrissy Wilder, he’s one of our own” still ringing in his ears – the Blades manager gave an emotional interview, where he questioned his own future if the boardroom tug-of-war was not resolved.
In challenging United’s owners in such a public way, Wilder has put his own position in the spotlight. But, it is his passion for a club he also served as a player, which has brought the issue into the public domain.
Managers have lost their jobs for less – questioning the club’s owners in public – but Wilder is adored by United’s support, and he speaks from a position of strength after reviving United’s fortunes on the pitch.
“I don’t think it’s my job to tell them what to do,” said Wilder. “It’s my job to tell the supporters where we are at because I’m the figurehead.
“I need to tell them and if that gets me into trouble then whatever.
“I can’t go into the pub and have a pint with my pals and pretend otherwise. I’m not giving trade secrets away. I’m not daft. But everybody is asking the same questions.
“It just needs to be sorted. You can’t have two owners where what’s going off is going off. It isn’t about money. I’ve worked without money.
“If someone comes in and puts the prices up to ridiculous amounts, the boxes and the season tickets, then says we can pay players £40,000 a week and the club ends up in a perilous position, I won’t do that.
I can’t go into the pub and have a pint with my pals and pretend otherwise. I’m not giving trade secrets away. I’m not daft. But everybody is asking the same questions.Chris Wilder
“I just need to know where we are going. Is one taking over? Are they working together? What is the expectation? What do you want to achieve? I just want to know that.
“There’s no way we can stand still because if we do then we’ll move backwards. That’s something I don’t want to happen.”
After running away with the League One title in his first season in charge at the Lane, Wilder steered United to the top of the Championship in November.
But, privately, he has been frustrated for some time with the behind-the-scenes ownership tussle.
The loss of key midfielder Paul Coutts to a season-ending injury and the struggle to adequately replace him has been a huge factor in United’s slide down the table.
A demoralising run of results – just one win in their last eight outings – ultimately meant United could not even hang onto a play-off spot. Against Preston, the Blades were beaten by Browne’s 57th-minute strike.
Goalkeeper Jamal Blackman could only divert Josh Harrop’s long-range strike away from goal, but Browne pounced to score.
United had plenty of their own chances, but lacked that bit of quality to break down North End’s stubborn defence.
When the hosts did threaten, Preston seemed to have a body in the way. Ben Davies blocked Leon Clarke’s strike, the Blades forward also denied by over-worked goalkeeper Declan Rudd.
But the best bit of defending came from Greg Cunningham, who threw himself in front of John Fleck’s fierce drive to deny what looked a certain goal.
Rudd tipped over a long-range effort from substitute David Brooks, and Preston thought they had a second goal, only for an offside flag to cut short Tom Clarke’s celebrations.
Defeat ended United’s play-off aspirations and sparked the public outpouring from Wilder.
But he stressed: “I’ve had this for longer than the last hour-and-a-half. I’m not coming out with this because we’ve lost.
“We’re competing with some huge football clubs. I don’t want to hurt the football club. We charge sensible prices. I don’t want to see those shoot up.
“I just want the team to progress, to do well, and move forward. I think we’ve got something special going on here. We’ve got an honest group. We’re all employees of the football club. They need to know as well as I do.
“I don’t want people to think this is because of the result.
“This is a powerful football club in this division. We’ve been in the doldrums for too long before and now we’ve got it moving in the right direction, we need to kick on. That will only happen with clarity.”
Sheffield United: Blackman, Stevens, Fleck, O’Connell, Basham, Clarke, Sharp, Freeman (Baldock 76), Stearman (Leonard 80), L. Evans (Brooks 66), Duffy. Unused substitutes: Moore, Lundstram, Donaldson, Lafferty.
Preston North End: Rudd, Cunningham, Pearson, Browne, Harrop (Gallagher 66), Johnson (Clarke 66), Fisher, Davies, Huntington, Maguire (Barkhuizen 58), Robinson. Unused substitutes: Moult, Maxwell, Earl, Bodin.
Referee: J Linington (Newport).