Chris Wilder always laughs, shakes his head and cracks a wry smile when asked, as the race for promotion enters its decisive phase, if Sheffield United’s squad might buckle under the pressure.
Seven points clear at the top of the table and beaten twice in only 14 outings, the League One leader’s manager is taking nothing for granted but, psychologically speaking, thinks his team is coping just fine.
John Fleck, the former Rangers midfielder, is among a clutch of United players who seem inspired, not intimidated, by the challenge of reaching the Championship next term. Having served his footballing apprenticeship at Ibrox, a ground Croatia international Miladin Pršo once claimed boasts an “incomparable atmosphere”, the 25-year-old is used to coping with expectation. Just like, he explained ahead of tomorrow’s game against Rochdale, most of his colleagues at Bramall Lane.
“We’re all used to being in these situations,” he said. “Even though nothing has been achieved yet. There will be twists and turns to come, right the way across the division, but it’s always funny to hear people suggest these are difficult situations to be in. Quite the opposite in fact; they’re why you play the game.”
United face another test of their title winning credentials at Spotland where, after beating Bolton Wanderers six days ago, they will attempt to stretch their lead over second-placed Scunthorpe. Wilder, who yesterday expressed “massive respect” for his opposite number Keith Hill, privately suspects this could prove to be an even tougher examination than the meeting with Phil Parkinson’s side. Nearly four thousand supporters are expected to travel to Greater Manchester. But, having enjoyed another 27,000 plus crowd at Bramall Lane last weekend, this will be a much more intimate experience.
“People keep asking me about the lads getting caught-up in things or feeling the heat,” Wilder said. “All I can say is, if they are, they’re certainly hiding it from me. Some people might find it a problem but these boys don’t. That’s not complacency; far, far from it. That’s something we never are because this is a difficult league full of talented teams. But, with regards so that question - can the lads handle it mentally? - yes, of course they can.”
Rochdale, who recently handed new contracts to former United centre-forward Steven Davies and academy graduate Aaron Morley, are 10th following the postponement of Tuesday’s meeting with Port Vale. United are set to have a near full strength squad at their disposal with Leon Clarke (ankle) the only absentee.
“It’s boring but it’s true, there are no easy games in this division, you’ve always got to be switched on,” Fleck said. “Because lots of us have been in these situations before, you know never to look beyond the next game. That’s the most important.”