CHRIS WILDER isn’t one to mince words. After results, honesty is what endears Sheffield United’s manager to an adoring fanbase. A relationship the like of which I have never previously witnessed in 49 years of passing through the turnstiles at Bramall Lane.
It’s unanimous. The Blades and the boss are a perfect fit but for how much longer? Repeated and unguarded comments over the last fortnight are concerning. Is Groundhog Day fast approaching or is Wilder playing a game of poker he is not prepared to lose? If it’s the latter, then who will blink first?
It was only nine months ago after a 1-0 defeat at relegation-threatened Hull City that Wilder talked of his players being maxed out and any hope of back-to-back promotions “is a waste of breath”.
“Maybe we’ve maxed out with this group,” he said. “Maybe I maxed out with what we were given in the summer and maybe we maxed out with what we had in January? “Maybe we’ve over-achieved but, as anyone who knows me will understand, I want to keep on achieving and driving things forward. What I’ve seen out there isn’t good enough for me.
“You can talk about tactics, formations and personnel all you want. But the biggest part of a game is desire and they showed more desire than us to go and win it. I know what I would have been like out there, with the chance to go into the top six. But that’s not what I saw from most of them.”
Ten weeks later, the season over and a disillusioned Wilder issued an ultimatum to United’s co-owners engaged in a bitter power struggle, they still are, to gain full control of the club. Either show some ambition and direction or he was ready to quit the club he loves. The one that he’s also played for, supported since he was a youngster and was even a ball boy.
“Nobody has got a gun to my head to manage this football club,” he said. “I’ve had it before when I’ve been at a football club and didn’t enjoy it. Where I thought ‘what am I doing here?’ I stayed when I had a chance to get out. I won’t make that mistake again.”
In the end he was given assurances and some extra cash to spend, most of which went on record £4million-plus defender John Egan from Brentford.
Fast forward to last Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at much better opposition in Nottingham Forest. But Wilder has raised the bar yet further. A win would have maintained the Blades outright Championship lead, a point and they would have been joint top with Norwich.
It sounded like deja vu as Wilder, bitterly disappointed with the quality of his side’s performance and an inability to see out the match instead of succumbing to “a badly defended goal”, vented similar frustration.
“It just seems to me that we have to play at our absolute max and maybe this is the bigger picture. We have to play at our max to get a result and when we don’t we’re an average side. So in one way, I don’t know whether to take this personally that I am getting the maximum out of my team for quite a long period of my stay at Sheffield United.
“Possibly most people do with more talented footballers in their football club. So that’s something we can take great pride as a staff and the players that we drive them on and they produce really good performances. Maybe I have to accept that when we don’t we become an average team and we have to accept these results. It’s tough for me to take that, like, but maybe I have to do that.”
In a thinly disguised reference to Neil Warnock’s automatic promotion-winning Cardiff City last season, Wilder added: “There was a club last year, I won’t name names, that had success that played not great for quite a long time but managed to get a result and we have to find that way.”
And in a return to the old chestnut of ambition or lack of it from Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud who are consumed by their personal battle which looks increasingly likely to be settled in court, he said: “I’d be dangerous if I had some cash, I know that. It’s not for me to decide, it’s not for me to dictate.”
Before the trip to Forest, Wilder told a national newspaper: “I’m sure both owners would say for something like this to be settled in a courtroom is not ideal. It’s something I can’t do anything about. It doesn’t impact my job on a daily basis, but it impacts the club’s direction. Planning and structures have to be put on hold. It doesn’t stop us wanting to win games and there’s a saying in Sheffield about trying to get a pint out of a half-pint pot.
“It will be interesting to see what happens in the lead-up to January, to see what the attitude will be. Me and the supporters would say, ‘There’s a pot there at the end worth £190 million’ but it ain’t my dough or my decision. I’d like us to be a bit more ambitious and for those differences to be sorted out, but if that’s not the case, we’ll give it our best shot.”
Prior to the recent victory against Wigan at the Lane, Wilder said: “It just shows what can happen with a bit of backing and ambition.” He was referring to the Latics’ eight-year stay in the Premier League during which time they won the FA Cup and secured Europa League football at the DW Stadium.
“With all due respect, and I have respect for them, they're not the most glamorous of clubs. Most people in Wigan will probably tell you the rugby league lads are the biggest team there. But that doesn't matter if you've got that backing from the top.”
It took Wilder until February last season before frustration with his employers grew large and patience began to visibly wear thin. This time around it has taken little more than three months before for those cracks have started to appear again.
Going so public has to be a tactical ploy to try and force their hands as the January transfer window fast approaches.
Interestingly, most United fans assumed the reported £12m sale of David Brooks to Bournemouth – which was in fact £500,000 less – would mean there was cash available even if the owners and Prince Abdullah in particular, are reluctant to spend.
In fact it has been revealed that United received an initial £4m for Brooks and have borrowed £7.5m to be repaid when the rest of the money from the south coast arrives. The interest from the loan is 6.5 per cent above the base rate, making it currently 7.5 per cent. The cash is reportedly being used to cover outstanding bills and pay for day-to-day running costs.
All of which suggests that unless McCabe and his estranged Saudi partner reach an agreement imminently, Wilder is going to be disappointed. Which is bad news for all Blades.
We know what happened last time. Wilder’s stock in the game has risen even higher since then. It’s unlikely he’ll settle for a fudge again.