‘We have to finish the season, it’s selfish to look at it any other way’: Chris Wilder insists current Premier League campaign must reach a conclusion no matter how long it takes
- Chris Wilder insists the Premier League season much end after a full 38 games
- Sheffield United are on the brink of a sensational Champions League place
- However, their progress has been halted by the coronavirus outbreak
- Sportsmail’s Oliver Holt joined the Blades for their last session before lockdown
- Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor?
Chris Wilder is standing by the side of one of the pitches at the Sheffield United training ground.
He is staring out at his players as they get ready for the practice match he has arranged.
‘I’ve told them to go out and enjoy it,’ says Wilder. ‘It might be the last time they play for a while.’ He laughs but he knows it is gallows humour.
Chris Wilder insists it is essential that the Premier League reaches a conclusion this season
The Premier League season has been halted but Wilder believes it must finish no matter when
The game begins. There are three or four of us on the touchline, the only crowd. Maybe it is because our leagues have been shut down, maybe it is because most other Premier League clubs have asked their players to train from home, but it feels like a privilege to watch footballers of this quality close up.
They say later they were playing at about 80 per cent but the standard is still often breathtaking. Perhaps, amid all the health concerns, the disruption and the financial distress, that will be one of the legacies of the coronavirus for football.
Perhaps, when the game returns, it will make us savour the joy of watching it more. Perhaps it will take some of the anger and tribalism away and leave us with the pleasure of watching superb footballers.
The Blades have been one of the stories of the season with their incredible top-flight rise
Or perhaps that is wishful thinking. For now, it is enough to be watching Sheffield United’s first-team squad on the grass up here on a hillside in South Yorkshire, relishing the opportunity to play, competitive to the last, wanting to impress their boss one more time.
Widely tipped for relegation, Wilder’s team sit two points away from a possible Champions League place. They have been one of the best stories of this interrupted season. This is their last act before they go into limbo.
It is easy to see why they lie seventh in our suspended league and how they surpassed the 40 points total, traditionally seen as signifying safety from relegation, with 11 games to spare.
John Fleck’s technical ability is even more mesmerising than it appears when you are watching from the stands at Bramall Lane. Billy Sharp explodes into action to turn a defender in the area and win a penalty.
Jack Rodwell, a player now half-forgotten by football but valued highly here, oozes class as he glides around the pitch. And David McGoldrick runs the show.
David McGoldrick has been one of the many revelations of the season for his performances
McGoldrick may not have scored in the Premier League but watching him on Thursday afternoon is a reminder of how good he is. He scores one goal with a chip from the halfway line and sets up two more. He is generally untouchable.
The team wearing the Blades’ familiar red-and-white stripes beat the team in the white tops 5-1. At the end, Wilder gathers them all together on the pitch and tells them what he expects of them as they prepare to move into a new phase of football’s shutdown, which may mean an end to games like this and a period where players come to training in smaller groups.
The players head back to the changing rooms and then file upstairs where rows of chairs have been arranged for them in front of a flat-screen television. A video is ready to play. ‘First Team Sport Science Home Training Program’, the words on the screen say.
In the foyer of the academy, 25 new Wattbikes are waiting to be sent out to the players’ homes. All visitors to the training ground are pointed in the direction of wash basins and soap and water before they even sign in.
Containers of hand sanitiser hang from the walls of the foyer. The club doctor, who has been planning for this for six weeks, bumps elbows by way of greeting. This is what is left of Premier League football in the age of Covid-19.
Wilder will now have to wait to effect his magic on the Blades again as lockdown continues
Wilder, 52, sits in his office, staring up occasionally at the television on the wall opposite, scanning it for any news from the Premier League meeting which is taking place as we talk.
Like everyone else, he is trying to adapt to a situation that keeps changing, to do everything he can to keep his players and their families safe and healthy and, when the time comes, to finish the job they have started so well. Wilder’s default setting is buoyant. He prides himself on his positivity and the atmosphere he creates at a club.
So this unprecedented situation is a test, even for him. Within the parameters being set by the Government and the football authorities, he is rising to it.
The attitude of his players, the obvious enjoyment they still take in their jobs, is testimony to that.
‘The players have a responsibility to be ready if and when the season restarts,’ says Wilder. ‘I have 100 per cent faith that they will look after themselves.
The Blades have shown fantastic focus, and Wilder expects that will continue off the pitch
‘They’ve worked unbelievably hard to get into this situation this season, they have worked unbelievably hard to get into the Premier League and they are a really tight group as well.
‘They know they have had to be together just to get out of the Championship, so it has always been about the collective.
‘We don’t rely on individuals to get us through at this club, although we have got some very talented boys in the side. It has always been a group effort. They realise that on the pitch as well as off it.
‘At first, I didn’t want to play the remaining games behind closed doors but my point of view now is that, if that is what it has to be in order to finish the season, then that is what it has to be.
‘There’s no compromise in this. We have to finish the season, however long it takes.
No Premier League fixtures have been played behind closed doors, but Wilder is open to it
‘The idea of freezing positions as they are now is not for me, even though you look at the table and think it wouldn’t be a bad result for this club from a selfish point of view.
‘Everyone will look at it from a selfish point of view and they have to come out of that. The Premier League season is a race. It is 38 games. No matter how many points somebody is ahead or how many points somebody is behind, it’s sport and anything can happen.
‘You go through the history of sport, from Devon Loch falling near the end of the Grand National to a collapse by a golfer after 16 holes, or a cricket batting collapse or whatever.
‘Right the way through, there are tales of people cantering to the finishing line and not getting over it. It’s the most prestigious league in the world. To finish it would be the right thing to do.
‘We are not setting targets or saying we want European football. We want to move our points total from 43 to 46 to 49 and just keep doing that.
The 52-year-old thinks freezing the positions and effecting relegation would be unfair
‘We have some huge challenges in front of us regardless of whether we are playing behind closed doors or in front of full houses like it has been at Bramall Lane all season.
‘At the end of it, the race is done and you finish in your rightful position. And you do it through the summer and the autumn and the winter and the spring and that is why this is the ultimate test.’
Wilder admits to unease about having to confront the absence of football in his life. ‘I can’t do downtime,’ he says. ‘I can’t imagine it.’
He says he has barely had the television on at home. Without sport, it does not feel as if there is anything to watch. ‘I’ve listened to Radio 2 more than ever before,’ he says.
‘That’s where I am getting to in my life. I used to listen to Radio 1, a bit of Kiss, or Kisstory, but now I’m going into Radio 2 territory.’
I ask him whether he will be found reclining on a chaise longue as he confronts this enforced period of leisure. Wilder scoffs at that idea. ‘What’s one of those?’ he says, grinning.
Wilder faces the prospect of life without football over the next few weeks as the league pauses
‘A settee? No, there will be none of that. The family know what my schedule has been over the years.
‘You are still ticking away. Your mind’s still active. It always feels like that with me and football. Regardless of success or age, it is always with you and it never leaves you.
‘The game grips you. It’s with you 24/7. It’s very rare that you slip out of thinking about the game, the job, what you are trying to do. Even now, with all the restrictions and the suspension of football, we are talking about how we can maximise this time.
‘We are looking at recruitment for the summer, really studying what we need, thinking about whether this is an opportunity to nail down some of the contracts players have been offered. We are very organised and proactive. We are planners as well. We are always studying other teams to educate ourselves.’
Wilder breaks off for a moment and gazes up at the television screen again. ‘Football suspended until April 30,’ he reads off the ticker at the bottom of the picture.
He takes a breath. It is not that he is surprised. He is aware of the seriousness of the situation and the measures that need to be taken to combat coronavirus but a season that was once a straightforward story of success for Wilder and his team is being redefined.
Football’s hiatus could last longer than the initial suspension, leaving players in limbo
‘If it means not going to Newcastle in front of 50,000 people, not playing Arsenal in the FA Cup quarter-final in front of 30,000, not going to Manchester United in front of 75,000, it will be a disappointment,’ says Wilder.
‘But there is a bigger picture here in terms of public health. We put that in perspective and so it won’t wreck our season.
‘When football resumes, I’m positive we will be able to finish the season on a high.’
Wilder will not be in the mood to sit back and be happy with what his side has achieved. He has the restless desire for improvement that marks so many successful managers. He has said in the past that he is driven partly by anger.
He had a good playing career but not as good as he thought it could have been. That is part of the spur.
‘I think there is always anger and edge to all people that want to work at the highest level, wherever that comes from,’ he says.
‘Look at the likes of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard and top players who turn up year in, year out to win things and have that fire in their belly to keep going and dismiss the season that you have had and move on to the next season and the next story.
Wilder admits that as a player he did not have the same desire as rival manager Frank Lampard
‘That is key if you want to achieve and sustain. The early formation of my career at Southampton and the environment I was in there, which was tough, relentless, ruthless, testing, was probably key.
‘I was there at 14, apprentice at 16, left at 19 on a free transfer. That was my first real disappointment as a professional footballer. I was rejected. That was a formation of an attitude, more than anything.
‘I should have done better in my career. I played in all four divisions. I had two or three seasons in the old first division so it wasn’t an old fourth division journeyman career but I look back and I should have got a little bit more out of my career than I did. That drives me on in the coaching and the managing.
‘The fundamental things, from when I first started, are still with me.
‘The values. Team, work ethic, honesty in the performances , selflessness in the performances, enjoyment in coming to work, the environment we create.
‘I look at management in the Premier League and I think there is a place for the international superstars that have graced the top division but I also think there is a place for the likes of myself who have had a different journey.
Wilder says some of the missed opportunities in his playing career drive him in coaching
‘There is Eddie Howe and Sean Dyche and myself who have had lower-league careers and gone into it that way.
‘It sounds a bit pretentious but if I was a non-league manager and had an average career or was managing in the lower leagues, they can look at me and think that a career at the top level in management can happen. With the bounce of the ball or a slice of luck.
‘I’m not sat here thinking it’s job done. I want to be here for a few years. To get here was difficult. To stay here is the next challenge. I am confident that with the values I have got and the direction the club is going, that it can happen.’
Wilder looks up at the TV again. The message is still there: ‘Football suspended until April 30.’ He knows that is optimistic. Amid all the positivity and the love of the game that permeates everything he does, uncertainty crowds in.
‘Even this game we’ve just had, I can sense the uncertainty in the players,’ he says. ‘Some were trying to get through it because they have got nothing at the end of it. Until now, there’s always been something at the end of everything.
‘You are always moving on to the next event and working towards something. Now, nobody knows what we are working towards.’
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