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Wilder on owning harsh lessons and breathing renewed hope at Sheff Utd

Friday lunchtime in Shirecliffe. Outside on the grass, there is a renewed sense of optimism that is sweeping through the Sheffield United Football Academy. There is a vibrancy to the surroundings in keeping with the mild temperatures.

You wouldn’t know that less than a fortnight ago, the men’s first-team had conceded five goals in the space of 35 minutes in front of their own supporters. In the cafeteria, the women’s squad are convening while the sofas in reception are filled with 16-year-old trialists freed on half-term and filled with nervous excitement.

Cutting through this frenzied energy strides a beaming Chris Wilder with the Premier League’s hardest handshake to welcome this reporter through the double doors of the media lounge.

One of many motivational messages adorns the walls – “Nothing is given, everything is earned” – follows us up the stairs to where his players can be found practising their golf swing and darts throw in a cozy common room.

Sunday 18th February 1:00pm Kick off 2:00pm

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A sense of community and hard graft is everywhere you look. Wilder has called on his “culture carriers” to pass on his non-negotiables to anyone that enters his group. The mantra to “out run, out fight, out play” is writ large in the auditorium where we settle.

That standard dropped earlier this month when Aston Villa won 5-0 during the club’s last home game. Wilder described the performance as “unacceptable”, but the 56-year-old expected a reaction – and he got it.

The Blades boss is now banking on his side’s survival bid gaining momentum after last week’s win at relegation rivals Luton lifted them to within seven points of safety.

“A win does a lot for your mood and the mood of everybody,” Wilder tells Sky Sports. “It’s been the complete polar opposite off the back of a really disappointing afternoon against Aston Villa.

Sheffield United have improved under Wilder
Image: Sheffield United have improved under Wilder

“I know how I’d like to come to work and how I’d like to feel inside the training ground. The reaction has been good. We’ve seen [heavy defeats] are what can happen in the Premier League.

“Even last Sunday we saw a team that’s won a European trophy [West Ham] get beaten heavily against a team that has been in the top six all season. We saw how a game can quickly get away from you.

“That’s what happened to us against Aston Villa – and it still stings. Of course, we want the players to feel good about themselves which they should do after a really good performance and result but in the back of our mind we must have that understanding of the perils of the Premier League and what can happen if you’re slightly off it.

Sheff Utd were clinical in their victory over Luton
Image: Sheff Utd were clinical in their victory over Luton

“The fans are huge for us and I’ve said that all along. In our second season the first time we were in the Premier League together, the Covid season, I said how much we missed them.

“I 100 per cent believe our supporters made that difference in turning a defeat into a draw and a draw into a win. We missed them throughout that and you certainly miss them when you don’t produce a performance that they’re proud of and that represents the football club.

“We need to show consistency, the right attitude and that competitive aspect right the way through. We have to own the Villa performance, we have to own that afternoon, and we have to show the fighting qualities that have got us into this position, that really represent me as a manager, the coaches and most importantly the supporters.”

Can Wilder reverse the trend at home?

Blades cause for concern

  • The fewest points a team has had after 24 Premier League games and not been relegated is 16 – Sheffield Utd currently have 13 points
  • Sheffield Utd have conceded 60 Premier League goals – the most by a team after 24 games
  • The Blades have conceded 31 home Premier League goals – only West Brom in 2020/21 conceded more in their first 12 home games

The Blades’ 3-1 win at Luton was their first on the road this season and just their third in the top flight since winning promotion in May. The victory has given fans renewed hope that they could yet avoid relegation with the tide turning under Wilder, who succeeded Paul Heckingbottom on December 5.

Eight of the side’s 13 points this season have come under Wilder as has their only clean sheet of the campaign in a 1-0 win against Brentford shortly after his appointment.

An attack that lacked firepower is also starting to find its scoring boots with seven goals in the last four games. It would suggest the side is gaining in confidence and whilst there is still work to do with the defence, they are facing nearly five shots per game fewer than they did under Heckingbottom.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from the Premier League match between Luton and Sheffield United

For the man with three titles, five promotions, eight trophies and over 1,000 games in management, where would keeping his boyhood club in the top flight rank among his career achievements? Wilder isn’t about to think that far ahead.

“Given the position I returned to, how everything has panned out and the narrative of it all, of course [it would rank highly], but the full focus is just on getting that next result.

“I can’t look beyond the next training session, and the next game. There is the ideal situation and the goal is to stay in the Premier League… it was at the start of the season and it doesn’t change now.

“The message to the players is to not get carried away if we get one decent result and also we must make sure we recover if we do get a disappointing result. That’s been the talk right the way through.”

Wilder: We’re still learning on the job

Chris Wilder
Image: Wilder knows his side need a hostile Bramall Lane

Wilder has seen his side struggle to get off the foot of the table during a season disrupted by player departures in the summer.

Several were sold to help stave off the club’s well-publicised financial problems whilst others who had been crucial to their promotion from the Championship returned to their parent clubs at the end of loan deals.

What has made the challenge even harder has been the absence of key personnel throughout the campaign. The signs were there when Max Lowe rolled his ankle on a sprinkler during a pre-season friendly at Derby.

Captain Chris Basham broke his leg in a freak incident against Fulham while John Egan injured a foot jumping for a header in October and has not been seen since.

Sheff Utd team news vs Brighton

Wilder must decide whether to recall January signing Ivo Grbic or stick with Wes Foderingham in goal following the Croatian’s recovery from concussion. Rhys Norrington-Davies (hamstring) misses out and Oli McBurnie (calf) will be assessed. Chris Basham and John Egan remain long-term absentees.

“The team and the club have been decimated over quite a long period now from an injury point of view,” Wilder admits. “I hear other Premier League managers talk about their injuries… it’s not so much the injuries we look at but the characters we miss – the ones with Premier League experience.

“The likes of your Bashams and your John Egans, your Oli McBurnies and now Ben [Brereton Diaz] has been out as well, so we’ve lost senior members of a new group. There are a lot of young boys playing for the first time in the Premier League and boys we’ve brought from overseas that are having their first taste of it, so we’re learning on the job and in this league.

“There’s no leeway for an off-day or for mistakes. But having a healthy, competitive squad and having difficult decisions to make is what I want. I’d rather have it that way than have quite a lot of the boys not available for selection.”

Does McAtee hold the key to survival bid?

James McAtee scores Sheffield United's second goal
Image: James McAtee’s influence is growing each week

James McAtee has been a bright spark in the struggling United side with four of his five goal involvements (three goals, one assist) in the Premier League coming since Wilder took charge.

Indeed in his last 10 games in all competitions, McAtee has provided either a goal or an assist on seven occasions. Wilder has been delighted with his contribution and hopes that his second loan spell can end with the ultimate high.

“He’s been outstanding for the football club over the last two seasons. It’s been smart recruitment and a smart bit of business. What you’ve got to do is sell the football club to the player and Paul [Heckingbottom] did that last year and did so again this year.

James McAtee has impressed for the Blades

“Then it’s down to the player wanting to join you. He’s not a daft boy, he’s smart and a real positive character in the dressing room and around the training ground.

“I think we all understand his background and where he would want to be eventually. He took up the challenge knowing this would be a season of struggle where we wouldn’t have the majority of the ball right the way through this season. He still decided this was the right place for him to come and his performances have been first-class.

“His assists and goals of late will be talked about but his general work-rate, his attitude towards the group has been brilliant. No doubt when he leaves us at the end of the season, I’m sure he will have enjoyed the experience. The fans have certainly taken to him and hopefully he’ll have a promotion on his CV like he did last year and maybe something else at the end of the season.”

A call for patience in balancing act

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Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder says that while he would love to play football like Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, the main thing for him will always be his team’s performance

Turning his focus to facing Brighton on Sunday, live on Sky Sports, Wilder urged supporters to be patient as his side look to improve on their poor home record. Sheffield United have faced 206 shots (17.2 per game) and 88 shots on target (7.3 per game) in just 12 matches at Bramall Lane.

Since 2003/04, the only side to face more shots per game at home in a season is Wolves in 2011/12 (17.5). The Blades boss is wary of going gung-ho against the Seagulls in search of more crucial points.

“You can only admire what’s been going on at that football club for a number of years,” adds Wilder, whose side let in five against Brighton in last month’s home FA Cup defeat.

“I had a short period there towards the late 90s and early 2000s at the Withdean when they were in the Old Fourth Division – what is now League Two. The journey has been incredible so a lot of good things have gone off there.

“A lot of credit should go to a lot of people there and Roberto [De Zerbi] is now taking it forward. Even the top two managers in the Premier League find Brighton an incredibly interesting team to play against from a tactical point of view, the way they play and bounce things out.

Oli McBurnie celebrates his equaliser
Image: Wilder will hope to call on Oli McBurnie again on Sunday

“They have a risk-and-reward approach which tactically is possibly one of the hardest – if not the hardest – games to deal with. Especially at home, where we understand everybody wants to convey the message of getting after them, putting them under pressure, shutting them down and pressing them… that’s precisely what they want you to do.

“So, you’ve got to get the balance right. You’ve got to make sure you’re tight, organised and you’ve got a structure of when and where to press. And when we do turn the ball over, we have to be clinical.

“They’ve shown they’ve given up some big chances as well. In the cup game they gave us some big chances. But off the back of that, they’re super clinical, they dominate possession and pass you all over the park so it’s a real balancing act not only from a manager’s point of view but also from the supporters’ as well.”

How to follow Sheffield United vs Brighton

Sheffield United vs Brighton is live on Super Sunday on Sky Sports Premier League from 1pm; kick-off 2pm.

Sky Sports customers can watch in-game clips in the live match blog on the Sky Sports website and app. Highlights will also be published on the Sky Sports digital platforms and the Sky Sports Football YouTube channel shortly after the final whistle.

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