Back early last summer, when Chris Wilder’s future was intensely debated, this Friday’s visitors to Bramall Lane got a mention.
The two I had down immediately were West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City, both newly relegated from the Premier League but with the resources and potential to bounce back quickly.
In the event, the Blades, in presenting a new deal and an increased budget, did enough to persuade Wilder to stay. West Brom confirmed caretaker Darren Moore in their job and Stoke took Gary Rowett from Derby.
Six months on, let’s look at where these respective clubs are in the Championship table.
United are third, West Brom fifth (ahead of their visit to the Lane this Friday) and Stoke are down in tenth.
If that doesn’t tell you something about the scale of Wilder’s continuing achievement, nothing will. And why the Blades’ warring co-owners MUST find a way to back him in January.
Stoke, by the way, shelled out almost £30m in transfer fees last summer for a raft of top-notch recruits, balanced only by the £13m sale of Xherdan Shaqiri. Rowett’s side were played off the park at the Lane in late October, lucky to escape with a 1-1 draw.
The Baggies were relatively modest investors, selling Nacer Chadli and James McClean for a combined £15m. But that was balanced out by a raft of signings including Sam Johnstone, Bakary Sako and Wes Hoolahan.
Wilder sold David Brooks for £11.5m and invested around £7m.
If there is a weight of expectation on either side in Friday’s clash it should really be on the visitors. And yet the Blades have put themselves in a position where many will be surprised if they don’t close on the top two at the expense of their rivals. Wilder critics, mostly to be found outside this city, complain that he plays the cash card (relative lack of) too often. But what if he didn’t? What if he allowed his team’s position to be considered normal? And how would that help his cause in January?
There are those who feel United can go all the way with what they have. I’m not among them. Yes, a possible squeeze into the top six but, considering the size and might of the clubs above and below them, that alone would be a mighty feat.
This column has no doubt that Wilder’s focus is on top two and to have any sort of chance of that, at least one high calibre signing is required.
That said, I’d give the Blades every chance of beating the Baggies. Recent results have been patchy, though performances remain at a generally high level, and last weekend’s win at Reading has reset a mood of optimism.
Wilder is carefully rationing big players like Mark Duffy and Billy Sharp, who came off the bench to take the team over the line at the Madejski Stadium and will almost certainly start on Friday.
You can foresee a very close and attacking contest, potentially a hugely exciting one.