Wilson puts up a United front in Steel City derby

After years at Wednesday as player then manager it was tough for the 52-year-old to take over their rivals. But, he tells Jon Culley, all will be forgiven if the Blades can win at Hillsborough tomorrow

He remembers the moment clearly and it will fortify him when he takes his team into the biggest game of their season tomorrow.

It came in Sheffield United's second toughest away fixture, against the League One leaders, Charlton, last month and for their manager, Danny Wilson, it signalled acceptance.

It had been a long time coming. Wilson's associations with the other half of a divided football city – more to the point his association with a relegated team when he was manager there – made his appointment last May so unpopular that 400 or so fans gathered outside the entrance to United's Bramall Lane stadium in noisy protest just as Wilson was being introduced to the media inside. This time, though, they chanted his name with approval. Wilson will face some hostility at Hillsborough this weekend when Wednesday and United lock horns in the 126th edition of the Steel City derby but at least he is no longer an outsider in his own ground.

Yet he does not blame those fans who were sceptical. "It is not easy to support somebody that you are not very confident in," he said. "Thankfully maybe one or two of them have changed their opinions. I feel there is a belief in what we are trying to do and that is very satisfying.

"But this is not about me wanting support. We need support as a team and a club and the players more than anyone. The fans singing my name comes from the performance of the players and the results they have achieved."

Those results have lifted United to second place in League One. Clearly, winning over the players has not been nearly so difficult.

"Right from day one he has wanted us to pass the ball and the players enjoy that," the veteran striker, Richard Cresswell, said. "As a footballer, that's what you want to do – to pass the ball, keep the ball and be confident on the ball. Sometimes we'll give the ball away in bad positions but as the season has gone on I think we've got better and better and that's why we've been on such a good run.

"I played under Danny at Wednesday, which seems a long time ago now. He is not that much different as a manager – a bit calmer, maybe – but he has had something like a thousand games now at all levels and his knowledge of the game has grown with that experience."

The irony for Wilson is that the perceived sins for which the May Day mob had held him accountable were a myth, as far as he was concerned. He may have played for Wednesday for three years and managed them for another two but, he says, his allegiance was never more than professional. Born and raised in Wigan, he is no more a Wednesdayite than Neil Warnock's service to Crystal Palace and Queen's Park Rangers made him a Londoner.

If anything, his feelings towards the blue half of Sheffield can only sharpen his current perspective. His time as a player there took him to three cup finals but his affections were soured when he was sacked as manager in March 2000, a victim of political interference after a gang of four Sheffield MPs, led by cabinet minister David Blunkett, took it upon themselves to demand his dismissal.

Happily, he has been able to find subsequent employers who did not share their view of his ability and it will not be his first time on the away bench at Hillsborough. He says that he cannot remember exactly how Wednesday fans reacted when he went back with Bristol City and MK Dons but is not expecting a particularly warm welcome.

"If they are good [to me], they're good, if they're not, they're not – I can't really do much about it," he said. "I'm not really bothered because we've got bigger fish to fry. People will have their opinions but the one thing they can be sure of is that I'm very committed to getting a result for Sheffield United."

Such an outcome would take United closer to the promotion goal that would ensure Wilson unequivocal respect and the shortening odds are that they will achieve it. United squandered a two-goal lead when Wednesday took a point at Bramall Lane in October and their progress was stop-start for another month. Since then, however, 13 league games have yielded 11 wins. Another tomorrow against a Wednesday side beginning to falter would put them eight points ahead of their neighbours, whom they displaced in second spot only a week and a half ago.

Not that Wilson would consider the job done, even then. He may have won promotion with Barnsley – famously, to the Premier League in 1997 – and later with Hartlepool but he has also suffered play-off failures at Bristol City and Swindon. "We're in a good position and we've moved forward in great leaps since I've been here but it gets harder from here and promotion's not a given by any means.

"If you're seen as a big club the teams you come up against really raise their game. It's a tough division to get out off at the first attempt, as the likes of Southampton and Leeds have found out before us."

It is an assessment with which Wednesday's Gary Megson would concur. After a run of one loss in seven matches appeared to have positioned his side for a decisive final push, the last four matches have all ended in defeat.

Wilson discounts current form, however. "I don't think there is a fag paper between us, really," he said. "We'll go there confident but you can't say it is just another game because it is not.

"From my point of view, as a professional, it is just about three points but a game of this intensity at this point of the season is fantastic because both teams are up there challenging, and the fans' expectation levels make it difficult to look at it in that way alone."

Victory, therefore, would be particularly satisfying, especially if it sparks United fans to reprise the song they coined in Wilson's honour, belted out to the tune of "Winter Wonderland". "You used to be shite, but now you're all right" is hardly the most elegant variation on the all-important middle lines but to Wilson's ears none could be more eloquent.