CHRIS WILDER has made an impact at Bramall Lane the like of which has not been seen since German aircraft bombed it in the Second World War.
Then it was wholesale damage to the infrastructure of the ground. Today it is the deeply flawed squad Sheffield United’s manager inherited when he took charge 16 weeks ago that lies in total ruin.
His ruthless action is beyond most Unitedites’ wildest dreams. But despite substantial savings on the wage bill and now cash in the kitty, it comes at a cost. Supporters can’t have it both ways but even so the first signs are emerging that Wilder’s straight-talking strategy might not be all that it’s cracked up to be.
This is his team now. Twelve additions and a new philosophy. The problem is it isn’t working. Late arrivals before the transfer window closed this week serve to ask questions of what has gone on in the weeks before. Not many imagined the time to dig in and keep the faith would have arrived so soon. But it is starting to look like that. The next few weeks will be defining. It could go either way but the status quo is not an option.
Wilder is bold, brave and until his post-match interview after defeat at Millwall which followed a midweek 3-0 crash at home to Southend, exudes an air of confidence. It visibly shook him. “That was my hardest week as a manager in football,” he later admitted. One-nil down at home to Oxford United last week, there was relief all round when United recovered to register their first win of the season.
There is no doubt it’s getting sweaty down there in the dugout. Wilder is beginning to resemble a well-meaning neighbour who has just taken your faulty car engine apart, is covered in oil, wielding a monkey wrench, surrounded by hundreds of unfamiliar-looking objects and confidently reassuring that he knows how to put it all back together.
The majority of United supporters are with him every step of the way. It’s just they hope having created what looks like the Parkway roundabout at rush hour after a traffic lights failure, he has got it right. Events during Wilder’s brief spell at the helm are beginning to question that. It’s still too early in the season to make meaningful judgment, but with only one win in seven league and cup matches to his name, if United don’t start motoring soon, 2016-17 is set to be another uncomfortable ride.
Contrary to popular cliche normally used by those who are looking for excuses, expectation at Bramall Lane is rather low. Yes, of course everyone wants to see United win promotion to the Championship and the club can’t afford to stay where it is. But for regulars now enduring a sixth season in League One, just a competent team, playing entertaining football and offering serious hope for the future will do for starters.
Blades fans demanded a wrecking ball be taken to the band of disaffected brothers. Largely overpaid, unbalanced, unfit for purpose and assembled by the two Nigels, former managers Clough and Adkins. A less-than-wild bunch which inexplicably flattered to deceive in, admittedly, two amazing cup semi-final runs. Boy did Unitedites get their wish.
Ten players released, two free transfers, another two paid to leave – Dean Hammond and Martyn Woolford receiving the ultimate insult, the latter immediately signed for Fleetwood Town – and four outgoing loan deals with Kieran Wallace this week following Woolford to the Fylde coast. Add to that the sale of Che Adams to Birmingham City for £1.8million and Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s £1.5million move to Everton. That’s 20 departures in little more than three months.
There have been 12 arrivals. Four on free transfers, five fees paid, one of them a compensation agreement concerning Lavery, and a season-long loan of Middlesbrough’s Harry Chapman. and defenders Daniel Lafferty from Burnley and Ethan Ebanks-Landell of Wolves. Chapman misses Sunday's trip to Gillingham following a call-up to England's Under-20 squad preparing to play Brazil at Kidderminster on the same day.
It is said that fortune favours the brave. Wilder has a plan and he is confident he can deliver which has to be applauded. Admired even. Bramall Lane is no longer a luxury destination for those looking to put their feet up. Nevertheless there are serious questions to be asked and, frankly, some of those concerns don’t reflect well.
Wilder arrived full of praise for what he described as the best two fullbacks in League One, Chris Hussey, one of his early signings, and John Brayford. He was wrong. The latter is now on a season-long loan to Burton Albion who are paying part of his inflated salary, and Hussey is a huge disappointment. So much so that Wilder this week virtually relegated him to a cover role after signing Northern Ireland international left-back Lafferty from Burnley until the end of the season.
Kieron Freeman, transfer-listed but with no takers, has stepped up to fill the right-back vacancy and is doing a far better job than hugely overpaid and under-performing Brayford was. Why was this not recognised earlier on the training pitch? Was it negligence, a lack of appreciation or was £17,000-a-week Brayford just being picked in the hope of attracting a buyer?
Three centre-backs were signed, Jack O’Connell, Jake Wright and James Wilson, to strengthen a major problem area which existed under the previous two managers. As irony would have it O’Connell, the only one to command a fee, has shown himself to be the weakest link. Wilson is at best average and both have been outshone by 30-year-old Wright in his only appearance, last week’s first win of the season against his old club Oxford United. Now Wilder has added loanee centre-back Ebanks-Landell which confirms that at least two of his original signings have fallen short.
Wilder has continually talked of the need to strengthen United’s midfield and add pace. He hasn’t. Instead United now appear to be relying on Paul Coutts, another transfer-listed player, to play a key role at the centre of the engine room alongside 23-year-old ball-playing Scot John Fleck, signed from Coventry City.
Coutts, it must be recognised, is growing into the job. If he is the solution – and that is a big if – why was he put on the transfer list? Why wasn’t he taken off it once it was realised he might have an important contribution to make? Or having had bids rejected for Wigan’s Sam Morsy, who has joined Barnsley on loan, is it a case of we’ll just have to make-do? Also, given United’s new-found eagerness to launch balls forward and bypass midfield, how does that utilise Fleck who is possibly Wilder’s best signing?
Leon Clarke and Billy Sharp are showing no sign of forming a partnership up front. Yet another judgment call from Wilder which has so far failed to deliver. Sharp, who scored 21 goals in a desperately poor side last season, is a shadow of his former self since Clarke’s summer arrival from Bury. The lifelong Blade doesn’t even seem to be relishing the captain’s role.
Wilder has just added Sheffield Wednesday’s Caolan Lavery to the mix, suggesting one of the two heavyweights up front might be about to make way. Is Sharp, now easily the highest paid playing for the club, assured of the future he must have imagined when Wilder was appointed and immediately made him skipper? Matt Done, meanwhile, whom Wilder insisted would be played down the middle and not out wide like he did under Adkins, has spent most of his time…playing out wide.
The loan of striker Marc McNulty to League One rivals Bradford City before he has even had a chance to re-establish himself at the Lane, is perplexing. The 23-year-old scored 14 goals in all competitions in his first season in a Blades shirt and was rewarded by spending last season on loan to League Two Portsmouth.
Given new assurances of his worth by Wilder he has still been forced to sit on the bench watching Sharp and Clarke play like strangers as United slumped to the foot of the table with the worst goal difference in League One. Not only has he been overlooked, he now has every chance to prove Wilder wrong with potential promotion rivals managed by former Blade Stuart McCall who knows how to get the best out of players. On arriving at the Lane Wilder said in a radio interview that when Lavery joined Portsmouth last season in a brief loan spell from Hillsborough, he and McNulty formed “the best strike partnership in the division.” After what’s happened this week where is the joined up thinking in that?
Wilder has enthusiastically talked up his philosophy of taking the game to the opposition, playing with pace and energy and exciting crowds. But for the first half in the opening day defeat at Bolton, it hasn’t happened. For the most part watching United this season has been remarkably similar to the previous campaign. Which is depressing.
Wilder openly admits his squad lacks pace. He enthused about attracting young top flight talent on loan to Bramall Lane. “We have talked about younger players from Premier League clubs who will see this as a great opportunity,” he said. “There are a lot of diamonds out there that teams from our level have got from Premier league teams.” Well, none of those jewels have been delivered to the Lane in a security van. Constant talk of bringing in a much-needed midfield man and a winger didn't happen either.
Goalkeeper George Long was offered and signed a revised two-year contract by Wilder in June. Two months later the player was told by the very same man he could leave if he wished after Simon Moore arrived from Cardiff City. Long suffered a bumpy start to the season but where was the surprise in that? Remember, Wilder is also a fan and had already seen enough of the keeper to know that he isn’t by any means the finished article and prone to errors. Again man management and judgment called into question. Long is guaranteed to be back on the bench at the Priestfield Stadium as Aaron Ramsdale is on England Under-19 duty.
Then we come to the sale of Adams and this week Calvert-Lewin, also in England's Under-20 squad, who between them have bolstered United’s back account by more than £3million. Inevitable, yes, if the interest is there and the players want to go. But what about all the talk from manager and co-owner Kevin McCabe alike about “giving youth a chance”? If a substantial profit is preferable to raw talent, why has Wilder found it so difficult to fill the vacancies he’s so publicly declared exist? Is he taking his directive of saving the club money and pleasing the accountants a little too far?
Wasn’t United’s ill-judged pre-season preparation, or lack of it as we now know, which included trips to non league Stockbridge Park Steels, Halifax Town, Handsworth Parramore and a jolly to La Manga something out of Britain’s Got Talent?
As ever, a run of positive results with performances to match will paper over these concerns and enhance the manager’s reputation of a man who gets things done. No pain, no gain and Wilder is no slouch. He’s got form.
He survived a train wreck that was Northampton Town who couldn’t even afford to pay the wages for part of last season and after a poor start led them to the League Two title by a margin of 13 points. The difference being that particular problem was not of his own making.