By GREGOR ROBERTSON
Sunday mornings always meant football with the lads up at the playing fields on Warminster Road, where games in the Meadowhall Sheffield and District League were played.
Bradway were the team, always a little better organised and kitted out in their Sheffield United strips, among the fuzzy heads and fags on the go before play got under way. They didn’t just look the part; more often than not they won too. Then afterwards, a pint at The Sportsman down the road, where the Yorkshire puddings and roast potatoes came out. Chris Wilder had played on Saturday, of course, for the other lot in red and white down at Bramall Lane; for Rotherham United at Millmoor; or Bradford City or Notts County a little further afield. There were no airs and graces though; not that anyone would have stood for any.
“All my pals who I’d knocked about with for years played on Sundays and I used to go and watch them,” Wilder, the Sheffield United manager, says. “My mate ran the team, then I started to get involved and helped out with it. That gave me ‘the bug’ a little bit. I was one of those players who, during my playing career, was always interested in the game; I never understood the players who said they didn’t like watching football, that it was ‘just a job’. It’s always been a lot more than that to me. The Sunday mornings were a good laugh, a break, and then we’d have a few beers afterwards. That’s basically where it started for me.”
It’s not just about what you say in boardrooms or what great sessions you can put on, you’re only as good as your players. Wilder and his pals have always been Blades. His mum’s family still live “about a mile and a half up one of the hills” from Bramall Lane, where he used to watch United as a kid — sometimes as ballboy, as a member of the Junior Blades.
The talented full back had the chance to sign for United at 14, but his dad had other ideas; he did his research and eventually decided that Southampton would offer the best opportunity for his son. Players such as Matt Le Tissier, Phil Parkinson and Dennis Wise were his contemporaries during three years on the south coast but there was no first-team breakthrough and he returned to Sheffield to sign for United in 1986, just in time to be part of the club’s charge to the First Division after a 14-year exile.
“We had a relegation then two promotions in three years,” he says, looking back on that time. “To play in that period — I wasn’t a regular, but to be in and around the football club and the first team was fantastic. Especially that first season in the old First Division . . . I think we had four points up until Christmas and everybody was writing us off. We won at [Nottingham] Forest on Boxing Day — our first win of the season — then won again on New Year’s Day at Luton, then won six or seven games on the bounce to propel us up to mid-table. We beat Man United at home, Chelsea at home; going up the year before then having that season, playing for your home-town club, all your pals being supporters . . . those are some really good memories.”
Known as a tough-tackling full back, there is something of an old-school, no-nonsense attitude about Wilder, which he has brought to management, too. A simplicity, which in this part of the country — the Steel City — seems to fit.
“There has to be an in-depth knowledge of players, they’re the main part of the job,” he says. “It’s not just about what you say in boardrooms or what great sessions you can put on, you’re only as good as your players. You have to go out and do the groundwork.”
Each challenge that he has taken on to date has been attacked with the same characteristic straightforwardness. There were promotions with Alfreton Town in 2002, Oxford United in 2010 and Northampton Town last season, two years after securing their Football League status on the final day of the season.
He has never been sacked in 15 years of management, though there were “about 24 hours” of unemployment as six years at Halifax Town came to an end when the club’s longstanding financial troubles resulted in liquidation in 2008.
Wilder joined Alan Knill’s Bury as assistant — a reversal of the pair’s present roles at Sheffield United — until Oxford came calling a few months later.. He remembers arriving at a destitute Halifax to find “no players, no training ground, no kit, no pre-season friendlies, nothing.”
“But it was a great grounding. I did every job, experienced every situation, and we got within ten minutes of getting back into the Football League [in the 2006 Conference play-off final], which in the circumstances and with the players we had was ridiculous, really,” he says.
That made him realise that astute signings — “players with something to prove; lads who’ve been released, young or old players who are trying to prolong their careers” — and unity fostered with a “backs-to-the-wall” mentality could prove a formidable combination.
A similar mentality was employed during Northampton Town’s unbeaten run from last December to win the League Two title; the players went unpaid with the club facing the very real possibility of going out of business. His stewardship of Northampton earned admiring glances from Charlton Athletic, Blackburn Rovers and Nottingham Forest in the summer, but you get the impression that even Manchester United may have had trouble in persuading Wilder to turn down the offer of a return to his boyhood club.
Four defeats and a draw from the opening five games of this season were chastening start, but a ten-game unbeaten league run followed, with Sheffield United climbing to fourth place in League One, with a game in hand over Bradford City, Bolton Wanderers and leaders Scunthorpe United, above them.
On Saturday, 20,495 supporters came to Bramall Lane for the 2-1 win over Milton Keynes Dons — the biggest crowd of the season seeing the unbeaten run stretch to 11.
Goals from fleet-footed Scottish midfielder Stefan Scougall, and United’s captain and talisman Billy Sharp’s tenth of the season, were enough to earn the points and add fuel to the belief that Wilder — their sixth manager in five years — may be the man to make their sixth season in League One their last.
“We’ve got it going in the right direction,” Wilder says.
“When it does have a bit of success I think the football world will know about it, because it’s such a powerful, special club.” And what of his pals, now he’s the man in charge of the club they all support?
“They’ve known me for what I am over the past 35 years,” he says, “I’m just one of the boys really, who just happens to manage the local team.”
IN A NUTSHELL
Nickname: The Blades, in reference to Sheffield being a big producer of cutlery.
Club crest: Badge of two crossed scimitars beneath a Yorkshire rose was introduced in 1977.
Ground: Bramall Lane, 32,702 Ticket prices Adult £18-29, Over 60/Disabled £12-22, Young Adult/Student £10-17, Under 18 £8-15.
Price of a programme: UTB (Up The Blades), 84 pages, £3.
Price of a pie: £3.40.
Price of a pint: £3.60.
Weirdest thing in the club shop: Personalised car headrest, £10.99.
Mascot: Captain Blade.
One for the future: Centre half Ethan Ebanks-Landell is on loan from Wolves and they plan to sign him permanently.
Record signing: James Beattie from Everton for £4million in 2007.
Highest league finish: First, Division One, 1898.
Moment in history: First of four FA Cups in 26 years in 1899 — their most successful period.
Greatest player: England midfielder Tony Currie scored 68 goals in 377 games for United between 1968 and 1976.
Greatest manager: Dave Bassett led Sheffield United to the First Division with back-to-back promotions in 1989 and 1990.
Celebrity fan: Actor Sean Bean, star of When Saturday Comes.