‘UNFORGIVING slog’ and ‘war of attrition’ are just two of the phrases that managers use when attempting to sum up the reality of life in the Championship.
The intense competition that makes a struggling side getting the better of a promotion contender almost a weekly occurrence in the second tier is one explanation often trotted out by those who patrol the second tier’s technical areas.
Another is a schedule so punishing that teams often face back-to-back weeks where five games are played inside just 15 days.
The clocks going back, as they will this weekend, and the nights drawing in only adds to this sense that the Championship season is more a test of endurance than ability.
Chris Wilder, however, is one manager who will not be joining his peers in bemoaning his lot as Sheffield United prepare to make the short trip up the M1 to Elland Road for Friday’s meeting with Leeds United.
“We just really enjoy being in the Championship,” the 50-year-old told The Yorkshire Post. “The games have been brilliant for everyone, both the people who have played and the staff. It was hard going to Middlesbrough (on the second Saturday of the season) because they are a good side and nothing has changed (in any of the subsequent games), but it is something we are enjoying.
“How can it be a slog when you have been out of it for six years? It can’t be a slog at any time.
“There are going to be periods when you are struggling, but the Championship is there to be enjoyed.
“Listen, six years out – and with all the s**t that gets chucked at you – you just have to enjoy everything that this division is about.”
The Blades’ first trip to Elland Road for seven years should be one to savour. Already, more than 32,500 tickets have been sold for a derby that will be broadcast live on Sky TV.
Wilder’s men will make the trip sitting four points above their hosts and knowing that a draw will be enough to return to the automatic promotion places, albeit potentially for fewer than 24 hours due to Cardiff hosting Millwall on Saturday afternoon.
Victory would take the Blades to the top of the table in the second tier for the first time since being relegated from the Premier League in 2007.
It is quite an incentive and further proof that there has rarely been a happier time to support the club. Not that Wilder, even allowing for him being a lifelong Blade, feels qualified enough to comment on when life was last as good as this at Bramall Lane.
“Other people will tell you when it was last like this,” he added. “We are in the bubble. It is a good period, yes, and things are going well, but it is for others to say.
“What I can tell you is the supporters are buzzing, they are enjoying watching their team. There is a good connection between this football club and its supporters.
“They recognise what we are trying to do, while we appreciate and recognise their backing.”
United’s visit to Elland Road is the first of three mouth-watering games before the Championship breaks once again for international football.
Next Tuesday will bring a trip to QPR before another Yorkshire foe lies in wait four days later as Leonid Slutsky’s Hull City head to Bramall Lane.
Should United maintain the form that has brought nine wins from the opening 13 games, surely even the most sceptical supporter will start to believe that a second promotion in as many seasons is well and truly on.
“Every game is great,” added Wilder about a recent run that has included notable victories over leaders Wolverhampton and neighbours Sheffield Wednesday.
“The games just keep rolling, from one big game into another. The atmosphere is great and the players are playing fearless football, which I am delighted about.
“I think we are quite a dangerous team to play against. We are just enjoying everything that this season is about.”
Even allowing for the dominant manner in which the League One title was secured last season, few outside the home dressing room at the Lane expected such a stirring return to the second tier.
The bookmakers, for instance, made Wilder’s men 25-1 to win the Championship before a ball had been kicked – a price that contrasted sharply with the likes of Aston Villa (7-1), Fulham (7-1), Middlesbrough (8-1) and Norwich City (9-1).
As it stands, United sit above all those fancied front-runners on merit after returning to the Championship clearly determined to take the game to the opposition.
“I have put demands on them,” added Wilder about his squad. “I have given them no hiding place and given them a structure to win games of football.
“But they are the ones who have to do it. We are playing well and are a dangerous team to any opposition although there is a hell of a long way to go.”