CHRIS WILDER’S reaction to defeat is never dull. Anger, frustration, defiance, hurt. A kaleidoscope of heart-on-sleeve emotions pouring from his tormented soul.
After defeat at Birmingham City, a poor side battling to maintain Championship status, he added a new and unexpected one. Resignation. Fortunately, for now, not of the quitting kind.
Who could blame Wilder for his demeanour? Certainly not club co-owners Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Kevin McCabe, whose mistrust of each other has led to a bitter power struggle. One which McCabe is prepared to have settled in court as the Saudi royal whom he courted and sold a 50 per cent stake for just £1 in 2013 attempts to take full control. Their differences since United returned to the Championship have effectively put meaningful squad development on hold.
Almost lost for anything positive to say about Saturday’s 2-1 defeat, the Blades boss sounded almost as tired as the performance of his team. If squandering yet another lead wasn’t enough to take, Wilder sported what in Brummie parlance is known as a face as long as Livery Street for the way his team tamely surrendered three absolutely vital points in uncharacteristic fashion. Points which in the final analysis may have shaped the future direction of travel.
“Maybe the race is run for a few of them [the players]. There were a few tired bodies and tired minds out there. Maybe that’s the consolation I can take; it doesn’t happen week in, week out,” conceded Wilder as United’s hopes of reaching the play-offs diminished with just two matches remaining.
“We’ve not played well enough in a big game. But the damage hasn’t been done today, the damage has been done when we have played well and we’ve not won games of football. That’s when it hurts you.”
He added: “We didn’t deserve to win the game. The opposition was better than us I felt in every department. Their fight was bigger than ours.” Similar words came easy to former managers Nigel Clough and Nigel Adkins. For Wilder they are chokers.
United slipped to 11th in the table, their lowest position since early August, but still remain three points behind Millwall who occupy the sixth and final play-off position.
Everything is not lost as all eyes transfer to Pride Park where as irony would have it, Neil Warnock can do himself and his former club a big favour. If second-placed Cardiff City win in midweek it will leave Warnock’s men four points clear of Fulham in the race to reach the Premier League. More importantly for United it would keep the door open to the play-offs.
A draw would see Derby move up to sixth on goal difference from Millwall. A win for the Rams, however, would leave them five points ahead of the Blades, signalling the end of any realistic hope of extending the season at Bramall Lane.
Best case scenario would make the final two fixtures of the season tantamount to play-offs to make the play-offs while still dependent on results elsewhere. United would have to beat Preston at home on Saturday and their final match at Bristol City eight days later. Both teams, like United, with an outside chance of reaching the end-of-season lottery.
Should the planets align between now and the end of the month, it would still leave the Blades facing either Fulham, Aston Villa or Cardiff, after Champions Wolves the most formidable opponents the Championship has to offer, in a two-leg semi-final.
Ask seasoned Unitedites what they think about the play-offs and it’s likely you will get an answer which equates to ‘not much’.
Based, of course, on the miserable experiences of the past. If any single event underlines the Blades unwanted reputation as nearly men this is it. Four finals, four defeats without scoring a single goal. Three semi-final defeats. All of them heartbreakers. No team has lost as many play-off finals as United. If you add semi-final defeats as well only Brentford equal the Blades woeful record.
Yet such is the indomitable spirit of football supporters, here we are willing them on to do it all over again in the slim hope that there is still light at the end of this particularly harrowing tunnel.
No question it remains Wilder’s objective. But as his demeanour at St Andrews suggests, the uncomfortable truth is that through club politics and the subsequent lack of funding made available to him, the Blades are unprepared to cross what now looks increasingly like a bridge too far.
“Premier League in five years” said co-owner McCabe in October. And therein lies a clue. United were never expected to get this close. The fact they have says so much about the manager and his players. They have nothing to regret.
That the odds are with them to fall short, however, explains everything you need to know about the politicking, poor decision making and ambition of those who ultimately run the show.