Chris Wilder sounded flatter than a Test wicket in Sharjah following last weekend’s game at St Andrews.
Understandably so given the result - a 2-1 defeat by Birmingham City - effectively ended Sheffield United’s play-off hopes.
Five points behind sixth-place with only two matches remaining, they enter Saturday’s meeting with Preston North End still boasting a mathematical chance. But the number of teams standing between them and a shot at Premier League football, the sheer volume of traffic they must overtake, means Bramall Lane is likely to be a Championship ground again next term.
Still, when the disappointment subsides and Wilder can dispassionately reflect upon the events of the past nine months, his mood should change.
Because you only need to scroll back to the beginning of the campaign, when survival was supposedly the limit of United’s ambitions, to understand how far his squad has come since lifting the League One title a year ago.
Yes, there will be disappointment. And quite right too. Complacency and contentment are the mother of all evils in professional sport.
Nevertheless, given the amount they have spent compared to those around them in the table, United have exceeded all expectations. Middlesbrough, who are only six points better off, spent over £25m on two centre-forwards last summer. Wilder’s leading goalscorer cost £150,000.
“It’s ridiculous to think we’re in touching distance of teams like that,” he said before travelling to the Midlands. “It’s ridiculous when you look at some of the teams we’re above. Now we’ve got keep driving it on.”
Bramall Lane’s powerbrokers must reach the same conclusion when they conduct their own review into the campaign. Wilder should be given the time, tools and perhaps most importantly the encouragement to ensure United remain on an upward trajectory. Or, at the very least, begin making the tweaks required to remain competitive. A quick glance at the clubs battling relegation from the top-flight suggests the division will be even more competitive come August.
Events in the boardroom mean new investment is unlikely arrive before the transfer window reopens. If HRH Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Kevin McCabe can not decide who runs United, the chances of them brokering a deal with a third-party backer seem pretty slim. Establishing clear lines of communication and a structured development policy are still key. Wilder has made a series of oblique references to the tug-of-war between the two co-owners. These reveal his frustration at both its timing and potential effect upon his development plans.
This is not to say Wilder’s relationship with those in charge is broken. He gets on well with some and not so well with others. Nothing surprising, unusual or worrying there. But as Chris Powell recently told the Coaches’ Voice website: “Your relationship with your owner and the people that run the club is key” to being a successful manager. He was referring to his spell in charge of Charlton Athletic and the challenge of working for Roland Duchatelet.
Despite the politicking between directors, Wilder is unlikely to become disillusioned if they put some of their differences aside and allow him to devise a coherent strategy.