LISTENING to Chris Wilder you would have thought his team had just lost. Which is why Sheffield United have risen from the foot of League One to the top of the Championship in the space of 63 weeks.
He won’t admit it yet, but in the manager’s eyes there is no reason to believe that meteoric ascent should be interrupted. Back-slapping, self appraisal and playing to the gallery, however, is for also-rans.
As Blades fans celebrated a landmark win at Leeds which lifted United to the summit and issued a statement of intent, Wilder was telling anyone who’d listen how disappointed he was with the level of his team’s performance.
Treason if the likes of you and me had dared to suggest such a thing after United had stunned fourth-placed Leeds in their own back yard. A victory that was fully deserved. Exceeding the expectation of thousands of fans, many of whom prior to kick-off would have settled for a point.
“I’ve got to say I didn’t think the performance was anything special,” said the manager. “We turned the ball over far too much, made elementary mistakes in passing.” He added: “I thought we played better at Forest [a 2-1 defeat] than we did tonight but it always feels better when you get a result.”
Supporters will have been surprised by Wilder’s reaction but they shouldn’t be. It offers the latest insight into the workings of a man who is a born winner. United are in the best of hands and while he continues to evade increasing chatter concerning promotion, there is only one matter rattling around in Wilder’s mind. Admission to the Premier League in May.
“We’re made up to come here on a night like tonight and get three points which is big,” said Wilder. “I thought we were ok in our box, better in their box, but the bit in the middle frustrated me because I believe we should have had more control of the game.
“That’s the standards that the boys have set. That’s where we are and I think if you ask a few of the boys in there [the dressing room] they will be a touch disappointed in the way they played.
“I don’t think we’ve hit as many misplaced passes in one game all season. We need to recognise that when these big games come along we just need to be better with the ball and the We’ll keep improving.
“We can’t sit back and go ‘this is us, we’re at the top of the division because we deserve it’. Every game is a big game for me, but outside of our football club we’ve got a target on our back so we have to be better when the pressure’s on.”
Mark Duffy, who gave yet another man-of-the-match display from thje right of midfield, agreed. “It was possibly not the performance we wanted," he said. "We didn’t really pass the ball as well as we could do, but at the end of the day it’s a derby, it’s a bit feisty and it’s all about getting three points.”
'A target on our back' has recently been added to Wilder’s repertoire of well-worn phrases which have become so familiar, and to coin one of them, we totally understand that.
Following back-to-back away defeats at Middlesbrough and Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City, United icon Tony Currie told local journalist and broadcaster Alan Biggs on a SheffieldLive sports show that he was tipping the Blades for automatic promotion. “I see no reason why not and you have got to be positive,” said Curry.
Biggs quickly moved on, United fans like me felt a tad uncomfortable for TC and the prediction was ignored by the rest of the local media. It doesn’t look so far-fetched now.
Pushed on whether United can consider themselves serious promotion contenders, Wilder wouldn’t be drawn, instead deflecting the question to praise Blades fans.
“You can only work hard to improve but there’s no getting away from the fact that we’re having a great period at the moment. These supporters through our history, let alone the last six years, have had enough to deal with.
“So to come to Elland Road tonight, and not a great record in the past, to get a win which we feel was deserved is reward for those long miles and those games which they’ve had to watch and be a part of.”
Even if United were to falter, what Wilder has achieved since taking office in May of 2016 is remarkable by anyone’s standards. Beyond the dreams of all but the deluded – and the man himself, of course, whose personal standing would remain beyond reproach. Among the many remarkable statistics which can be trotted out, the Blades have spent 122 days of 2017 at the top of their respective leagues and under Wilder they have never lost after taking a half time lead.
So what’s the secret? “We’ve assembled a talented group of footballers which we’ve tried to organise and push into shape and get them going,” was the modest answer. “But they’re just really good characters. That quality gives the opportunity of going anywhere and winning the game.
“Sometimes we’ll have nights like this where we’re not as good as where we want to be but always the attitude, the commitment, the desire of the players who are together.”
It sounds so simple and maybe in Wilder’s mind it is. Putting together a balanced squad, each with the required personal character and getting the message across is far more complex.
Less than 18 hours after skipper Billy Sharp had shown his former club what they were missing to give United a second- minute lead, and super sub David Brooks hit a sublime 85th-minute winner, Wilder was at Loftus Road, plotting the downfall of midweek opponents QPR.
Substitute Matt Smith headed Rangers' winner with nine minutes of normal time remaining, their first for eight matches, defeating Wolves 2-1 and denying Nuno Espirito Santo’s side an immediate return to the top.
“That's [almost] 300 games I've managed this lot and that performance makes me as proud as any other performance we've given,” said QPR boss Ian Holloway. “Let's see if we can do the same against Sheffield United."
A target on their back indeed. Beating the Blades is an aspiration in the current climate. Ten wins from 14 attempts since returning to the Championship says that. Toppling them with Wilder on the touchline, a United fan whose single-minded mission is living the dream, has fast become a coveted prize.