When the pleasantries were over and a few perfunctory handshakes had been exchanged, Chris Wilder sat down in front of the assembled media and began to convey the message which, following their Steel City derby success, he hopes will coax even greater levels of performance out of his players.
That was then. This is now. Focus all your attention on Wolverhampton Wanderers.
“We have to keep our feet on the ground after something like that,” he admitted. “But, being honest, I don’t think we’ll have ram it home. We’ve got a good dressing room that runs itself well and knows what is required.”
Given the quality of their performance, coupled with the fact it produced such an emphatic result, Wilder could not entirely escape the subject of last weekend’s visit to Hillsborough during his pre-match press conference yesterday. But it was instructive that, despite describing the 4-2 win over Sheffield Wednesday as possibly the most satisfying result of his career, the 50-year-old was reluctant to relive it all over again before discussing tonight’s Championship fixture. United might be new to the division after spending six seasons in League One. However, for all the talk of steady progress and development, they privately harbour ambitions of achieving something a little more tangible this term.
“Maybe we have gone a little bit under the radar,” Wilder acknowledged. “But I’d be delighted to deal with expectation levels if they did rise. That’s an issue we’d love to have for obvious reasons. We have to be consistent and we have to keep on improving. We will be and we will do that.”
United and Wolves, fourth and second in the table respectively before last night’s round of games, are two very different teams. Bankrolled by Chinese conglomerate Fosun International and “advised”, to satisfy football legislation, by super agent Jorge Mendes, the visitors’ manager Nuno Espírito Santo spent nearly £20m during the recent transfer window, including £15.8m on Rúben Neves.
Wilder, whose biggest outlay was £700,000, has based his success on continuity. Eight of those who featured against Wednesday were members of last season’s promotion winning squad while another four were unused substitutes. It is a model borne partly out of necessity but also, given the importance he places on character, design.
“This is a massive challenge,” Wilder said. “Everyone saw what happened there in the summer, what Wolves did and how they went about it. I think it took everyone by surprise but you can see the scale of their ambition to get back to the Premier League. They have obviously adapted really quickly to what the new manager is trying to do there and the things he wants to put in place.”
“If anything rammed it home to me about how much this division has changed, it was them spending all that money on one player,” he added. “If there was one thing that tells you all you need to know about the finances in this division, with people on parachute payments and all that, that was probably it. We’re obviously trying to do things a different way but that’s not a criticism of them. We just have to look in different pots.”
Given the physical and emotional demands the game against Wednesday placed upon his players, Wilder might nevertheless be tempted to make changes this evening. Defender Richard Stearman has made progress in his battle to overcome a hamstring problem while Daniel Lafferty, the Northern Ireland international, could return if Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill decide to rotate their wing-backs. It was a policy they employed to good effect during United’s last midweek fixture - a 1-0 win over Bolton Wanderers - where both Enda Stevens and Kieron Freeman were rested. Leon Clarke, who like Stearman is a former Wolves player, is expected to line-up alongside David Brooks in attack after their partnership proved so effective at Hillsborough. However Clayton Donaldson, absent since scoring twice on his United debut earlier this month, is also in contention.
Wolves required a late goal from Alfred N’Diaye to beat Barnsley four days ago and, with the pressing game employed by Paul Heckingbottom’s side proving unsettling for the hosts, Wilder said: “Every team has their flaws. We will be trying to exploit theirs and vice versa. I’ve always thought Hecky is an outstanding manager. We do what we do and we know how we like to play. We want to make it as uncomfortable for the opposition as possible.”