CHRIS WILDER eluded to it and Blades fans with long memories will have noted it too. The tide is turning as demonstrated in what the manager admitted was a “massively important 45 minutes” as Sheffield United evolve into Premier League contenders.
I like many fans over the years, have been battered into becoming an eternal pessimist. Of course we have had our moments, but this is not the Blades I have known and loved for almost half a century. A third of the way through the season and sitting proudly in the Championship’s second place, only a fool would now refuse to rate them as serious promotion contenders.
Similarly, most United fans are not fully paid up members of the Pint Half Empty Club for nothing. A lot can go wrong between now and May. The law of averages says that this level of happiness cannot be sustained.
But with this manager, the team spirit he has embodied, and co-owner Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud recently emerging from a four-year self-imposed silence to publicly pledge funds in the January transfer window, the Blades have much more than a fighting chance of achieving back-to-back promotions.
The term play-offs elicits involuntary twitching and severe depression when uttered to Unitedites. They’ve watched their team fail to turn up four times at Wembley and suffered a disaster at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium in an ultimately miserable quest for promotion. On three of those occasions the Premier League was the prize. Who would seriously suggest that could happen again under Wilder. Lose maybe, but United are almost guaranteed to put up a fight.
Three times this season the Blades have had the opportunity to top the Championship and twice spurned it. At the last time of asking after beating Leeds at Elland Road, they reached the summit. Only to follow up and slip to third with a decidedly below average performance at QPR four days later in a 2-1 defeat. Fast forward to Bramall Lane and at half time, against Hull, the Blades were trailing courtesy of a sucker punch. Was the DNA beginning to resurface accompanied by an uncomfortable feeling of been there, seen it, got the T-shirt.
No. The latest statement of intent, one of many this season, in what has already become another remarkable campaign under manager Wilder, was to follow. The biggest and most timely yet.
Forty-five minutes on and Leon Clarke, well newly established as the darling of the Lane, crowned a tremendous recovery with four goals on the best day of the 32-year-old’s career to send the Tigers home with their tails between their legs. It moved United into second place behind Wolves for the duration of the latest international break.
“That in the past at this football club is a real difficult situation to be in, but not for this group of players,” said Wilder. “After getting beat on Tuesday and going 1-0 down [to Hull] I think it was a massively important 45 minutes for us today. I shouldn’t be surprised about the reaction because I know the players inside and out.”
He added: “There have been some really good days here but I thought this was outstanding.” His most telling observation – and most significant as the future unfolds – encapsulated what he has built in 18 action-packed months at the Lane: “Our group is bigger than the individuals we are facing at the moment. That will always be key to me.”
Wilder is not a man to be around when he’s on the losing side, which happily, isn’t very often. Only fifteen defeats in 70 matches in charge at the Lane has given him a remarkable 62.9% win margin. Every one of those defeats have hurt and his players know it.
The latest of them, at Loftus Road, was met with controlled fury. “I had words behind closed doors. We’re not here to just go to QPR and relax and say we’re top of this division. It was a little bit of a wake-up call for us,” he said.
“Tuesday night we were five, sixes and sevens and that isn’t enough for us, it certainly isn’t enough for me. To win a game of football at the top of the Championship you’ve got to be producing sevens, eights and nines.
“Maybe there was one nine-and-a-half or ten today but they were all up their in their standards. They lifted themselves and drove it forward. It was a big game for us before because we didn’t want to go into the international break on a low and feeling a little bit sorry for ourselves after what happened at QPR. We certainly needed a big performance and a big result and we got that from everybody today.”
Big performances, as a team and as individuals is what fans now come to expect. The default position. In stark contrast to what has been served up for too many seasons in the past.
The football world has suddenly woken up to what has been going on at Bramall Lane under cover of darkness. A fact that will make the task ahead even harder. The difference being it’s something Wilder and his team will relish.
The tide is indeed turning.