WORDS are cheap as every Sheffield United supporter knows to their cost. Another failed season, another manager appointed, another set of soundbites. So what’s new?
Appointing a lifelong Blades supporter didn’t work last time, either. Micky Adams oversaw United’s drop from the Championship. Step forward Stocksbridge-born Chris Wilder. As down to earth as they come.
A Blade, a former ball boy who made 122 league and cup appearances during two spells in his beloved red and white-striped shirt. Now he’s living the dream, having just signed a three-year contract with the chance of becoming a legend of Neil Warnock proportions.
On paper the appointment of the 48-year-old Sheffielder whose home remains in the city and has just guided Northampton Town to the League Two title, 13 points clear of their nearest rival, was a masterstroke. In practise it remains to be seen.
What is for certain, however, is that with Wilder what you see is what you get. A no nonsense individual who has former Rotherham United manager and much respected coach Alan Knill at his side.
“There’s been a progression in my managerial career. I don’t want a dismissal on my CV. I haven’t got one. I’m ready for the challenge,” said Wilder who also returned Oxford United to the Football League via the Conference play-offs.
If he is to buck the trend at the Lane, he’s going to have to start from almost scratch, building his team around George Long, Chris Basham, Che Adams and 21-goal striker Billy Sharp. Wilder won unanimous approval on day one by stripping Jay McEveley of the captaincy and handing it to Sharp. Defender McEveley, whose future must be in serious doubt, was never worthy of the armband.
“He [Sharp] does what it says on the tin,” said Wilder. “Scores goals. He doesn’t want to go to another Player of the Year do and talk about the failings and what we should have done.
“I’ve already talked to Billy. I’ve known him for quite a while. It's a bonus he understands the club like myself and what it takes to win promotion. He’s proud that I’ve picked him as a captain and I’m sure that he will be a great leader for this football club.”
Unity and leadership have been buzzwords bandied around the Lane for the last two years by managers who in their own inimitable styles have achieved exactly the opposite.
Nigel Clough’s bloated squad was riven by damaging divisions and cliques. Now it appears all was not well in the dressing room under his successor Nigel Adkins who also managed to seriously fracture the strong bond between supporters renowned for their loyalty and the club they worship.
Such was the mess that Adkins’ strongest ally, Kevin McCabe, swapped sides. He reluctantly joined co-owner Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in the realisation that, embarrassing as it was, manager number nine in as many years was desperately needed.
Somewhat puzzling, however, was McCabe’s insistence that United “isn’t a sacking club”. Few football chiefs can have sacked as many managers in a relatively short space of time but McCabe suggested that some of the employees concerned had left because they wished it. Gary Speed, to become Wales manager, is the only one that springs to my mind.
“I can’t change what’s gone off,” said Wilder during his official unveiling following a whirlwind couple of days at the Lane. “But one thing I need to do is bring the club together.” McCabe agreed wholeheartedly. Unity is key.
Such has been the Blades decline under Adkins that McCabe is now even willing to accept that promotion, while the priority, is not the be all and end all. Wilder, he suggested, would still be in the job at the end of next season even if United narrowly missed their target. The proviso being that a huge improvement is evident to all. “I don’t go in for three and five year plans and stuff like that,” said Wilder. “If we can get out of this division this year we will do.”
The eradication of Big Club Syndrome and the many players who have viewed it as a comfortable well-paid shelter from the harsher realities of life on the outside, is a good starting point. United is a well established and now mid-table third tier football club. Apart from real estate It’s asset is it’s core support, something McCabe is anxious to protect following recent events.
Which is where Wilder scores and others have stumbled. What came across loud and clear during his introduction was a genuine knowledge of the club and its failings. A man who has followed events closely at the Lane for many seasons. He may now have the plushest office and most comprehensive training facilities of his 14-year career in management but he appears to be under no illusion.
“It’s something I have already talked about,” he said. “I think too many teams over the past few years have come here and it’s been too easy for them.
“One of the difficult parts of the job,” he added, “at this level and especially going up is moving on players with big contracts. There have to be decisions made. This group has to be together.
“They have to be on the same page and we have to have a bit of fun fun as well. We have to enjoy the challenge and maybe in a couple of things I’ve seen it’s overwhelmed a few of them. It shouldn’t be like that.”
He also identified a cardinal sin that has gone hand-in-hand with United in recent years. “It’s no good doing interviews and going onto Twitter and Facebook saying we’re going to do this and do that,” he said. “We have to produce and they have to show supporters the qualities that they’ve got.”
You wouldn’t expect a man who has just earned the job of his dreams to be critical of his employers but, nevertheless Wilder volunteered an honest assessment.
“For a club to fail there have got to be a few things that happen. The Board being at loggerheads. I don’t sense that at all,” he said. “The two co-owners have got a vision and the drive to take it forward.”
McCabe was at pains to stress that United have spent too much money in the last three years on players who haven’t been right for the club. It seems likely that Wilder won’t be working with the type of budget enjoyed by Clough. Indeed, I understand the £1.5million three-and-a-half-year deal struck for John Brayford has been cause of major concern.
“We all understand in football that to be successful we have to have a decent budget to work with,” said Wilder. “I should imagine, and it will be for other people to talk about, but it will be a reduced budget.
“One of the qualities and attractions that the owners saw in me and my CV was that I have had to work within budget. I enjoy that part of the job. If players want to come and join this football club it has to be at the right price.
“I have to work with the figures I have been given and nobody will be paid a penny more than I think is worth it.” But he added: “I understand that to attract the better players you have to stick your hand in your pocket.” Wilder views United’s supporters very much as the twelfth man and as a fan himself, understands what it means to be a Blade.
“We have a brilliant support,” he said. “To get 21,000 on a Sunday afternoon [the final match of the season, a 2-0 defeat to Scunthorpe] for a mid-table game it’s just incredible.
“That excites me. It should excite the new players who are going to be coming into the building. It should excite the existing players that have been here because I know when this place gets moving it is formidable.”
Wilder will be judged in the short term when the retained list is announced and how many groans, if any, it creates from a fanbase thoroughly demoralised by what it has been forced to endure in the miserable season just ended. A stuttering campaign which saw United cemented in 11th place. The worst finish for 33 years.
“It’s not finalised,” he said. “I’m working very closely with the technical board on recruitment. The bottom line is that we’ve got to sign the right players for this football club.
“There might be a couple of players that supporters might think will be on the way out, that might not be. And there might be ones who are thinking they are here next season that might not be. I’ve got to make tough decisions on that but I’ll make them in an honest way and I speak the language of everybody here. That’s the way I work.
“If you’re not part of it then you’re free to go. I understand I might have to work with a few players who might not understand but that’s how it is.”
Too right. Twenty thousand Blades hope he has the courage of his convictions.