Chris Wilder’s demeanour during Sheffield United’s final press conference before this evening’s derby told you all you need to know about his attitude to the game.
Fists clenched, jaw jutting and looking every inch like someone preparing to enter battle, the manager spoke with passion, determination and authority. But not before, leaning across the dug-out, making a confession as he fixed his inquisitors with a cold, hard stare.
“This never has, and never will be, just any other game. That’s not the way we look at it here. They might have changed their tune on that now. But we’ve always known this is bigger than anything else out there.”
Wilder’s tone was not surprising given his Steel City credentials. A lifelong United supporter, he also made over a century of appearances for the club he has followed since childhood before retiring as a player. But, by choosing to talk-up the match’s significance, the 50-year-old did reveal plenty about both United’s approach and how he governs behind the scenes.
“There’s no spin on it, no kidology. There’s no denying this is massive for everyone involved. We can’t fool our fans into thinking this is just another three points. It’s a chance to do the double, to inflict more pain on our fiercest rivals, to try and keep the momentum going in terms of our challenge.”
Despite their contrasting fortunes this season, United and Wednesday will enter the match in exactly the same form. Both have won one and drawn three of their last nine league outings, although the hosts did beat Ipswich Town in the FA Cup six days ago.
The atmosphere of the respective camps, however, could not be more different. Seventh in the table, Wilder’s men know a win would reignite their challenge for promotion from the Championship. Wednesday, playing their first match under new manager Jos Luhukay, are peering anxiously over their shoulders after slipping to 16th. Nevertheless, as Wilder explained, all of that will count for nothing when this most explosive of fixtures gets underway.
“It’s not going to be given to us, no way. But that’s not something we’ve ever expected. You don’t win game like we did, to get ourselves out of League One last year, by having a blaise attitude. That’s possibly what it was like here in the past, which is why the club didn’t get out of the division, thinking’ that’s three points here, that’s three points there.’ You’ve got to give the opposition respect, as we always do, regardless of injuries or form. Regardless of a new manager or things happening behind the scenes. We give them respect because they’ve got good players. But we’ve got to major on us and focus on trying to do what we do best.”
Indeed, United need only cast their minds back to September’s meeting at Hillsborough to remind themselves how difficult these matches are to predict. Having started with only one recognised centre-forward at their disposal and, five months after winning promotion, crudely dismissed as being fresh from “The Pub League”, they triumphed 4-2 courtesy of goals from John Fleck, Mark Duffy and a Leon Clarke brace. Wednesday arrive intent on retribution and, given the way football tends to work, galvanised by Luhukay’s presence.
“We have done some research on their new managers and what his teams have been like,” Wilder admitted. “We’ve got Wyscout, and we’ve had a look at clips and preferred formations. Mind you, all of that could go out of the window. I don’t know whether they will go for it, sit back and look to invite us in or play three at the back and try to match us up. But what they do is their business. Our prerogative is taking the game to them and trying to get the result.”
Nevertheless, United will look to pick away at any psychological scars after hearing Wednesday’s David Jones admit his team mates are still hurting after their disappointing results so far this term.
“We’ve said we’ll approach it in a positive way and we will do,” Wilder, who could hand debuts to James Wilson, Lee Evans and Ryan Leonard, said. “We’ve got a few new players in and we’re in good nick. We’re a touch disappointed not to have taken maximum points from a few more games which would have lifted us into the top two or three. But, generally, the performances have been first class. We’re trying to kick-on.”
Wilder, however, did permit himself one glance back into the past.
“Everybody said, before the first game at their place, that we’d just be booting it here there and everywhere and putting in tons of tackles because of my background as a fan and all of that. But, do you know what? I actually thought we played pretty well that day. We had to see out a period, as you would expect, but overall I thought we dominated in terms of our aggressive approach. We played good stuff ourselves, broke play and drove the game forward. That’s how we want to go about things.”
After all, something much bigger than a football match is at stake.
“There’s been a hell of a lot of rivalry over 100 years or so. It’s swung one way then the other. For me, not only to win games and improve league positions, the aim is to swing the momentum in this city back to us. There’s never been a dominant force. You might get one playing second fiddle for a while, as we were, but I want them to be chasing us now.”