SHEFFIELD UNITED head to runaway Championship leaders Wolves with manager Chris Wilder insisting his seventh-placed team remain on the right track despite only two wins from their last 12 league matches.
The Blades lost 1-0 against Aston Villa at Bramall Lane in midweek, the first of three fixtures from which the collective outcome is likely to have a significant bearing on prospects of securing a place in the play-offs.
But Wilder remains bullish after watching his players dominate for much of that match. “We’re outplaying top Championship clubs here,” he said. Whether it’s Derby County away [United drew 1-1], second in the division who’ve been knocking on the door to get in the Premier League. Aston Villa, Steve [Bruce their manager] has come in [to Wilder’s office] afterwards and said I thought your team’s done really well, [I don’t know] how we got away with that.”
Wilder also revealed that he and the club had to “stay strong” in the face of interest for some of their top players during the January transfer window.
“We’ll keep that under wraps,” said the Lane boss who nevertheless did volunteer that it included not only Championship clubs but “higher” as well. The latter almost certainly refers to 20-year-old Welsh international midfielder David Brooks who has attracted interest from a number of Premier League clubs.
A heartbreaking defeat against Villa who scored the only goal in the 90th minute, was the first of three huge fixtures with the potential to define the course of United’s season. After the trip to Wolves, Leeds United are next up at the Lane. But the latest setback has not diminished Wilder’s belief that they can go to Molineux and spring a surprise.
“Nottingham Forest have gone there and got a result [Wolves were beaten 2-0 last month],” he said. “So it’s not impossible to get a result and that is what we believe we can do on Saturday tea time.”
He added: “After looking at our result on Tuesday maybe a few people might writes us off a little bit. We go there as underdogs anyway but even more so after Tuesday night.”
Wilder is buoyed, however, by the renowned team spirit he has built during 19 breathtaking months in charge. “One thing that has never been missing from the boys is their character and belief that they can go anywhere and get a big result.”
United’s struggle to turn possession into goals is something that has characterised a prolonged reversal of fortune as far as results are concerned, beginning in mid-November after topping the Championship table for the second time this season.
Against Villa some supporters were perplexed that new signing from Wolves, Lee Evans, who dominated in central midfield was substituted. There was surprise too, when Ricky Holmes came off the bench for his debut ahead of Mark Duffy who remained in the dug-out. It was a similar situation to when James Wilson was granted his debut as United searched in vain for a winner against Sheffield Wednesday with time running out last month when tried and tested Billy Sharp looked on.
Wilder recognises some fans are frustrated by a perceived reluctance to press home territorial advantage around the oppositions’ box but he believes the remedy is fine tuning not structural change.
“This is the way we play,” he said. “Teams are set and pushed back. We’ve thought about this. Possibly at times [we can be quicker] but we don’t just want to put aimless crosses into the box. Yes, we have an opportunity if we have half a yard and play round people and have an opportunity to put the ball in the box a little bit quicker.
“We’ve talked about that. I’m not going to be critical towards that opinion but we play in a different way and teams are set because we push them back. We’re not playing on the counter-attack, we’re not playing against teams where they have 60 and 70 per cent of possession. We’re pushing teams back by controlling the game.
“We’ve dominated for 45 minutes [against Villa] an outstanding football club. We’ve done that to other teams. Of course we want that little bit at the end. The little bit at the end is the Jack O’Connell header [which hit the underside of the bar]; the little bit at the end is the final touch when maybe Leon [Clarke] goes through or George Baldock goes through. Or the bit of magic where James Wilson overhead kicks it and it goes in the back of the net. But these are fine dividing lines in Championship football.
“I think supporters will nitpick at our performances which I understand, that’s the nature of the game. These are little bits that we can improve on but you know we’re not going to cross the ball for the sake of crossing when teams are sat in there.”
He added: “It’s suited us for 18 months. We’ve played a lot of good teams and we’re just looking for that last little bit. We have to find ways of winning games and combination plays around the box and maybe putting the ball in a little bit quicker. These are good situations and good problems that we’re having to overcome.”
Unlike the summer transfer window which produced a fraught final day as United missed out on well researched targets, Wilder lived up to his word of ensuring that all transfer business in January was completed well before the deadline. But he is equally as happy that poachers from other clubs didn’t succeed in prizing away key assets.
“We’re delighted that we’ve kept hold of all our players,” said Wilder. “A lot of our players are coveted by other clubs in the Championship or even higher. We’ll keep that under wraps. There’s obviously conversations that do go off about availability but we’ve stayed strong, I’ve stayed strong because I want to build.
“We’ve done some excellent business in January with the players we’ve brought in. We’ve strengthened and there’s a couple who have gone out the building so I think we’re in good nick, in good shape in terms of what I was given to strengthen.
“I think you have seen with the last two league performance and the boys we have brought in they’re effect on the group, they’re effect individually. Wilson, [Ryan] Leonard and Lee Evans have been outstanding in both games.”
Midfield man Holmes, a target as long ago as last summer at Southend, was the fourth and final arrival and made his debut against Villa coming off the bench. Meanwhile Striker Caolan Lavery has been loaned to Rotherham United for the rest of the season. Nathan Thomas, the midfielder signed in the summer but who has made only two starts in his three appearances, is now on loan at Shrewsbury. Irony has it that in both those starts he scored, once in the EFL Cup at home to Walsall last August, and a spectacular winner in the FA Cup third round at Ipswich recently.
Samir Carruthers, bought from MK Dons 13 months ago, remains at the Lane after attempts to loan him out, to Charlton it is believed, broke down. “It didn’t pan out,” said Wilder who has clearly been disappointed in the midfield man’s progress this season.
“Samir will come into the group, he has to work hard and get his head down and you never know. We had a situation at the start of the season where we had five strikers out for two or three games. So you never know what’s around the corner, we’ve got some good players in the middle of the park now, we’ve got good players (in the position) at 10. If he does well in training and there is an opportunity for him he has to take it.”
Loanee goalkeeper Jamal Blackman has been spending time at his parent club, Chelsea, in recovery following injury, is expected back at United’s Shirecliffe training base next week.
In Blackman’s absence Jake Eastman has been deputising as No2 to Simon Moore. “He went down to Chelsea to start his rehabilitation and get treatment down there,” said Wilder. “We’re expecting him to be back up the road on Monday morning.”
HOW THE JANUARY TRANSFER WINDOW UNFOLDED
IN: Lee Evans (Wolves), Ricky Holmes (Charlton), Ryan Leonard (Southend), James Wilson (Manchester United, loan)
OUT: Caolan Lavery (Rotherham United, loan), Ben Whiteman (Doncaster Rovers), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Spurs, loan terminated), James Hanson (Bury, loan), Nathan Thomas (Shewsbury, loan)