CHRIS WILDER gave the distinct impression he is not impressed with new Sheffield Wednesday manager Jos Luhukay’s belief that all derby matches are the same.
“I find it a little bit baffling to get my head around,” said the Sheffield United boss on the eve of tonight’s Steel City showdown at Bramall Lane. “He’s experienced some derbies before, hasn’t he. I’ve not experienced a German derby so I don’t know what that one’s about. He’ll possibly know what ours is about, I find it a little bit baffling to get my head round. It’s not about what he’s experiencing or what he’s going through it’s about the two sets of players and what they do on the night.”
That cool response was to Dutch-born Luhukay’s assertion when addressing the media ahead of what will be his first match in charge of the Owls. “As a coach in Germany I have [experience of)]fantastic derbies,” he said. “After the game [at Bramall Lane] I can remember what I have in the past, maybe it’s all a little bit the same what I have learned in Germany and now here in England.”
The 54-year-old who replaced Carlos Carvalhal only seven days ago, has three won promotions to the German Bundesliga with Borussia Monchengladbach, Augsburg and Hertha Berlin.
Wilder summed up the mood on both sides of the city, saying: “All our supporters can’t wait for this fixture to come round. Our players can’t wait, myself and my staff can’t wait, I’m not so sure that is the case for the opposition.”
As a manager Wilder has only one experience of facing Wednesday, the 4-2 win at Hillsborough in September. But as a lifelong fan he’s watched many derbies and fully appreciates the deep divide and feeling between both sets of supporters, prompting his dismissive response to Luhukay.
“There’s an extra spring in the step. I think everybody has been looking forward to this game for quite a while. We’ve had a fantastic start to the season. We’re a touch disappointed with the results in December,” he said.
“Ive only been involved in one [Sheffield derby] from a touchline point of view. But I’ve been sat in there [pointing] and been over there and been four or five miles down the road [at Hillsborough] as well. It’s a lot of anticipation, there’s obviously butterflies in your stomach and the excitement of why your in the game, why you want to support your club.”
Surprisingly for a man who has been a ball boy, player and now manager at the Lane, Wilder claimed he had never thought about the possibility of managing the club he loves against bitter rivals Wednesday until promotion from League One last season.
“I’ve never really thought about it until I experienced it earlier this year (season) up at Hillsborough,” he said. “It was a magical experience that will live long in the memory.”
United start the match as form favourites. Seventh in the Championship table, they are just seven points from an automatic promotion spot and well in the play-off mix. Wednesday, meanwhile, lie 16th and only six points clear of the relegation zone. They arrive at the Lane depleted by a long injury list and the trauma of recent managerial change after Carvalhal and the Owls parted company on Christmas Eve after a run of poor results.
United, however, while in a much better position, are only just recovering themselves from a calamitous December which temporarily derailed their promotion push. To an outsider looking at the stats, it would seem over the last ten league fixtures there is little to choose between the two clubs.
The Blades had two wins, three draws and five defeats, taking nine points from a possible 30. Wednesday one win, four draws, five defeats and seven points over the same period. But United, despite turbulence, fare better in the goals scored department. They netted 16, conceding 17 to show a difference of minus one; the Owls found the back of the net nine times and conceded 15 for minus six.
Wilder recognises his team are regarded as favourites but said: “That goes out of the window come quarter to eight. We all have situations where results don’t go well, we all have situations where your best players are out and you’re struggling a bit. It’s how you cope with that. We’ve coped quite well with that and we’re back on track and moving forward”
He added: “We’re in good nick and whether that tags us as favourites or not we’ll take it, deal with it and hopefully get the win.”
Luhukay, a disciplinarian, has ordered double training sessions for his players this week and is banking on tonight’s occasion to provide the extra motivation for a team that lacks confidence.
“You have only four days to prepare the team so it is a hard situation,” he said. “It’s a special game, of course, for everyone. Derbies are special. We have a lot of respect for United but I as a manager have always respect for an opponent. They make [have done] a very good job, they have a good position in the league so we must try to give our best.” He added: “This is a special game which comes with motivation to turn it around.”
Wilder has no sympathy for the task facing his counterpart from Hillsborough this evening. “I’m not going to shed any tears if they’re going through a bad period exactly like they didn’t shed any tears when we’ve had our downtime and we’ve certainly had that.
“As I’ve said before I don’t think you need to be a glory hunter to support Sheffield United with the ups and downs that we’ve had. You take it on the chin and you give it back. Hopefully it’s our time but we have to make sure it’s our time by kicking on and going and winning the game.”
He believes United fans will have a big say on what happens. “We’ve got to make it as hostile and as noisy as possible without going over the line.”
He added: “We had to endure ten or 15 minutes just after half time at Hillsborough and fair play to them, they got their place rocking and made it difficult for our players. We have to do the same to their players and their set of staff. That’s how it is.”
Wilder confirmed that Charlton’s Ricky Holmes is a transfer target whom he hopes will join new signings Ryan Leonard, from Southend, and Lee Evans, from Wolves, to complete the strengthening of midfield. Striker James Wilson, on loan from Manchester United until the end of the season also gives him further options tonight.
“I’m delighted that we’ve managed to have got the maximum out of what [budget] I’ve been given. We’ve got three talented players in there who will really boost our group going into the New Year.
“We’ve got the ability to do one more, we feel we’re a little bit light in one area. Ricky Holmes is on the radar. He’s one of a number of players that we’re looking at.”
Wing-back Kieron Freeman, a key player for United before long-term injury, is set to return to full training in ten days’ time. Striker Ched Evans, meanwhile, will play his first match for the Blades on Monday since undergoing an operation to correct and ankle problem.