EXPECT a stampede rushing to hail Chris Wilder’s attack on his players last week as a managerial masterstroke. A queue has already formed of those only too willing to say Sheffield United’s comfortable 3-1 midweek win at Reading proves it.
What nonsense. It’s insulting to an honest group of players who had a rare collective off night in defeat at Hull City which prompted the manager's extraordinary outburst. But why allow the facts get in the way of a good story.
The Blades arrived at the Madejski Stadium having accrued six points from a possible nine. They left with nine points from 12 and back in the sixth play-off position. Three wins from four outings, not forgetting a polished FA Cup fifth round performance in between at Premier League Leicester City decided by a single goal dispatched by England international Jamie Vardy.
Despite rumour to the contrary begun by a passionate United fan who goes by the name of Wilder, this is hardly the record of a team whose play-off hopes are over. Far from it. Runaway Championship leaders Wolves have won one of their last four league matches since beating United at Molineux, taking just five points from the 12 on offer.
Had United left the Madejski Stadium without maximum points against a painfully poor Reading, there would be real reason for concern. At least Hull presented a challenge last Friday night. The Royals quite literally rolled over.
If ever a team represented the polar opposite image of Jaap Stam, their manager who in his playing days as an uncompromising centre-half cut a formidable figure for among others Holland, Lazio and Manchester United where he won three Premier League medals, and a Champions League and FA Cup winner's honour, it is Reading. Beaten by Huddersfield on penalties in last season's Championship play-off final, they now teeter above the relegation zone and without a home league win since November 28.
In anticipation of what was to follow, a crowd of just 6,769 (average attendance this season 16,700) scattered across yawning gaps on the 24,161 capacity Madejski. A figure boosted by more than 700 from Sheffield who weren't to be disappointed after loyally making the snow-bound round trip on a bitterly cold night.
Low in confidence and devoid of ideas, hopeless Reading we’re still given, and wasted, an opportunity to draw level after being two goals down. Anyone who witnessed events in Berkshire will tell you that United were much closer to what is usually expected. But they were wasteful, too.
Had the real response materialised as Wilder was demanding the Blades had every opportunity to score five goals and keep a clean sheet against a team looking like one that hadn’t won at home since November 28. Even opposite number Stam admitted: “It could've been six or seven to be honest. If you're not starting games well enough defending decisively and aggressively, you'll give the opposition chances.”
So yes, United returned to something much more recognisable and no doubt they were out to impress with the manager’s recent outburst ringing in their ears. But to describe it as being the result of psychological genius is stretching the bounds of a good headline too far.
It was telling afterwards that Wilder sent out genial No 2 Alan Knill to face the media. It suggests the manager was, in fact, far from happy with some of what he saw. But having won and scored three goals on the back of bruising criticism, it would have been churlish to say so and at the same time make the story all about him.
Leon Clarke, for example, missed two golden opportunities before setting up Billy Sharp for United’s opener. Clayton Donaldson, Clarke’s replacement after pulling up in the first half, lacked cutting edge. Defensively, United didn’t have to cope with much but they still allowed their beleaguered hosts a way back into a match when they had no right.
From being 2-0 up and cruising, poor defending enabled abject Reading to score. Had not substitute keeper Simon Moore saved a 61st-minute penalty from Leandro Bacuna who Aston Villa once paid £3million for, Stam’s pushovers would have been on level terms. Not quite the response the Blades boss had demanded then.
It was ironic that two players in no need of managerial motivation, Mark Duffy and Sharp, were outstanding performers on the night and also provided the goals. Duffy’s strike from 25 yards, United’s second, was worth the admission money alone. Both recently sidelined by Wilder to make way for his January signings and both much better than those who replaced them. Duffy’s consistent industry and attacking instinct from midfield makes it hard to understand how in such form he could ever be overlooked. Having been restored to the starting line-up in the last home match against QPR and, as ever, impressing, inexplicably Duffy found himself back on the bench at Hull.
Ryan Leonard was preferred. If anyone encapsulated United’s miserable performance that night it was the 25-year-old just recruited from League One Southend and a long-term target.
Since the turn of the year skipper Sharp had fallen out of favour. But his latest double strike takes the 32-year-old’s tally to four in as many consecutive appearances since winning his place back against Leeds earlier this month.
Wilder was perfectly entitled to publically admonish his team at The KCOM Stadium. Issue a reminder of what is expected when basic standards are not met. But even he must realise in the cold light of day he went too far in throwing his toys out of the pram. That’s not genius. It was foolish.
If you or I had suggested as Wilder did, that the team’s chances of reaching the play-offs were over when they were just two points off sixth place with 13 matches and 39 points to play for, we would have been laughed at. More rant than motivational. As I said in a previous post it’s something you’d expect the infamous Brian the Blade to say on the local football phone-in.
Wilder, however, is an emotional boss and a passionate Blades fan. Disappointed after watching the worst performance of the season against vulnerable opponents who were there for the taking, in the heat of the moment he lost his head. A perfect example of what happens when you become too close to the woods to see the trees.
Given his fantastic record over 91 matches at the helm, the manager has earned the right to sound a bit silly once in a while in pursuit of a goal his warring bosses don’t seem so keen to share, only adding to the frustration.
United had an off day in East Yorkshire. So did the manager. As in life, the trick is to learn from your mistakes. In truth it was a far from perfect display at Reading given the paucity of the opposition, but it was good enough. A far more telling test awaits next Tuesday at Fulham.
In the meantime, players and manager, as illustrated by his diplomatic silence at the Madejski, have moved on.