IT doesn’t get much better than this. Nine league matches unbeaten, seven wins and two draws. Twenty-three points from the last 27 on offer.
If it is at all possible to live the dream in the third tier of English football then fans of Sheffield United are currently living it. Even co-owner Kevin McCabe can’t have dared dream of this just five months after appointing Chris Wilder as the Blades ninth manager in as many years.
A 4-0 romp at home to Port Vale, a comprehensive performance the like of which has not been seen at Bramall Lane for years. Then in midweek three more goals and another clean sheet at Shrewsbury. Now comes the biggest test of the season so far, a trip to Stuart McCall’s second-placed Bradford just a point ahead of the Blades.
One Unitedite, however, is at pains to play down the clubs sudden rise from the ashes of what former manager Nigel Adkins left behind and a truly dismal start to the current campaign. That party-pooper also happens to be the most important person in the room. Yes, Wilder, the architect himself. Some fans' heads might be in the clouds but the manager’s feet are planted firmly on the ground
“I’ve been in the game too long and I know what’s round the corner,” he said in the build up to the demolition of Shrewsbury which lifted United to within four points of leaders Scunthorpe with a match in hand. “You’ve never cracked this game. The best of teams will tell you that and I know what is around the corner. Football has a horrible habit if you don’t get it right, you’re attitude isn’t right and your head isn’t right any result could happen.”
That single-minded experience has been acquired the hard way. It is easy to forget Wilder’s managerial career began 15 years ago this month at non league Alfreton Town and continuous employment since then will soon see him reach 800 matches in charge.
His genuine, down-to-earth approach resonates with anyone who has been brought up in Sheffield. “Without being arrogant I’m not doing it to get the fans on side,” said Stocksbridge-born Wilder, after 1,000 ecstatic Unitedites left the Greenhous Stadium having seen a second-half performance in which their team continued pressing forward to the very last seconds. Memories of United of old. “It’s just the way I want the team to set up. It’s a work ethic.”
And again. “We want the lads to play with a confidence and a swagger but if there had been any Billy Big-Times out there then we could have got done. There weren’t.”
Wilder is right to take the long view. So much of United’s recent history has been peppered by public comments, mostly from the players themselves, which have often been laughable. Familiar phrases have been trotted out over the last few years with monotonous regularity. ‘We’re a big club’, ‘buying in to what the manager wants’, ‘quality in the squad’, ‘Bramall Lane is visitors’ Wembley’, ‘we did everything right but score’. Sound familiar? Believing your own publicity is something the current manager could never be accused of.
In the last week United have found answers to problems which had been holding the team back. Until Port Vale arrived at the Lane the Blades were averaging little over a goal a match. Since then they have scored seven without reply.
It is no coincidence that goals started to flow after a the real issue for United, in midfield, was answered. John Fleck, Paul Coutts and Mark Duffy’s iron grip, particularly against Vale, allowed what has seldom been seen by Blades supporters during the last three years. The chance to control and dominate the central area.
How far United have travelled in such a short space of time this season is indisputable. Defeat at Millwall, just four days after crashing 3-0 at home to Southend left United at the foot of the table with a solitary point and four matches played. Since then the Blades have added 23 points in comparison to pace-setters Scunthorpe 18, Bradford 15 and Bolton 13.
Former Blades favourite McCall, looking ahead to the visit of his old club at a sell-out Valley Parade, said: “For me, being a bit biased, it's the biggest game in this league because of the rivalry and the size of the clubs.”
He added: “This will be a real test for our lads. Sheffield United will undoubtedly be in the top six. But if you can't look forward to a game like this then you shouldn't be in football.
“I had five fantastic years at Sheffield United and have got a lot of respect for people there. I had a great relationship with the supporters. They've found a good system, they've got goal-scorers in the side and are playing with confidence.
“People were saying six weeks ago that they were struggling but once Chris got his ideas down, you look at the squad and a lot of them have been Championship players.”
Praised indeed from the high-flying Bradford boss but it means little to Wilder whose affable demeanour disguises a ruthless determination. For him outcome is everything. You’re only as good as your last performance and his players know it.