SHEFFIELD UNITED have reached a watershed following the disappointing goalless Steel City derby draw at Bramall Lane.
The Blades are now standing at a crossroads. Which route they take over the next four weeks will have a huge bearing on whether Wilder is indeed on the beach come early May reflecting on what might have been. Upcoming league fixtures could make or break the season. Trips to Norwich City and runaway leaders Wolves; Aston Villa and Leeds United at the Lane.
It will also determine whether the club’s policy of tying the hands of the manager by forcing him to largely comb the lower leagues for recruits was wise, heavily relying on his ability to coax the best out of journeymen.
The Blades began holding all the cards. Presented with a golden chance to reboot their stalled promotion bid in a perfect setting before a 31,120 crowd, they failed to take it against an injury-hit team under new management, lacking confidence and fearing the worst.
It was noticeable that the 2,218 Wednesday fans packed into the Bramall Lane end – they sportingly joined in pre-planned applause for lifelong Blades fan Michael Witheford who died aged 60 earlier this month – were far less buoyant than in previous visits.
Instead, despite enjoying two thirds of possession but producing only two shots on target against the patched-up Owls who had defender Glenn Loovens sent off in the 64th minute, United have just one win and seven points to show from their least 10 Championship matches. Viewed in isolation relegation form. Sunderland, bottom of the table and widely regarded as a hopeless case, have added 11 to their total over the same period.
United’s case, however, is far from hopeless. After topping the Championship for the second time of this campaign in mid November followed by a run of results no-one can have foreseen, they still occupy the final play-off position. But with 19 fixturesremaining the clock is ticking.
"If we win a few games we can go far,” said deflated Blades manager Chris Wilder. “I don't want to be sat on the beach at the end of the season after finishing eighth, ninth or tenth and everyone saying it was a fantastic season while I'm watching teams in the play-offs and getting promoted and thinking 'really? We should be in there’.”
Much will depend on his work in the January transfer window which continued when Charlton Athletic winger Ricky Holmes had a medical then watched the derby from the stands. The deal for the 30-year-old who played under Wilder at Northampton, was completed today adding to the arrival of midfielders Ryan Leonard, a long-term target from Southend, and Lee Evans from Wolves. Striker James Wilson, on loan from Manchester United, made his debut from the bench as United searched in vain for a winner against Wednesday.
Only two additions in the summer, defender Richard Stearman and striker Clayton Donaldson, possessed current Championship experience. That tally remains the same. Of this winter’s crop, Leonard and Holmes are from League One. Evans, who has previous Championship experience, spent the first half of this season on loan at League One Wigan. Wilson, from the rarified surroundings of Old Trafford, until Friday night hadn’t had a senior outing since early October 2016 when injury ended a loan spell at Derby.
Wilder is further boosted by wing-back Kieron Freeman, a key player who dislocated a knee at Ipswich in October, who has begun full training. Striker Ched Evans who underwent surgery to correct an ankle problem is due to return as an over-age player in tonight’s Under-23 trip to Bolton Wanderers.
Friday night at the Lane was memorable as a spectacle, the Sheffield derby never fails to produce an electric atmosphere, and two outstanding second-half saves that could have won the match for either side.
First Sheffield-born Joe Wildsmith palmed away a goal-bound glancing header from United’s Donaldson. Then in the closing stages Wednesday’s Adam Reach was denied by the bravery of Simon Moore who, winded and struggling to stand after a collision with his own defender Stearman, dug deep to produce an acrobatic leap and tip the ball behind.
It finished a point apiece but it felt like a better outcome for Wednesday given the circumstances leading up to the match. Owls boss Jos Luhukay, appointed only seven days earlier, can claim legitimately that he won the tactical battle in his first match in charge, taking a huge stride to winning over the sceptics at Hillsborough.
The Dutch manager who has won three promotions to the Bundesliga in Germany with Borussia Monchengladbach, Augsburg and Hertha Berlin, took the bold decision to switch Wednesday’s accustomed four-at-the-back formation to a 3-5-2, matching United. It worked.
After a shaky start which illustrated their confidence issue, Wednesday grew into the match as United failed to press home their obvious superiority. When Loovens was dismissed for his second bookable offence with 26 minutes of normal time remaining you would have hardly known the Owls were reduced to 10 men.
“I’m proud of the character the team showed in the last 20 minutes or so when we were down to 10 men,” said Luhukay. “It’s the first step to get to a better situation for the team. I’ve enjoyed working with the players in the last few days. They have been 100 per cent focused for my ideas. I think it is a good start and a base to build on.”
While Wednesday look to regroup and consolidate, Blades boss Wilder has loftier ambitions. ”There's still a long way to go and a lot to play for, but I don't want hard luck stories and anyone thinking we're unlucky,” he said. “We need to be better."
“We’ve played some decent stuff, but I want us to play some decent stuff and win. We’ve come a long way in a short space of time but I want more.
“I want the players to believe that we’re good enough to compete at the top of the division. Those key moments, those big moments that separate and win games of football; we've not shown enough of them over the last month to six weeks."
Wilder won’t have to wait long to learn if his wish is granted. The next four league fixtures will provide revealing answers.