CHRIS WILDER says he will quit Sheffield United if his expectations for next season are not matched by the club’s warring bosses.
“I had it at Oxford. I stayed a year that I shouldn't have stayed,” said Wilder. “I’m not saying I'm not happy, I absolutely adore it here. I’m frustrated and gutted.”
Wilder’s stance almost certainly means he will be leaving shortly after next Sunday’s final match of the campaign at Bristol City. Unless there is a dramatic intervention and co-owners Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Kevin McCabe come to their senses. In the unlikely event it would mean dropping their protracted power-struggle to refocus on pressing matters on the pitch and giving Wilder all the assurances he needs.
The Blades boss delivered his bombshell minutes after completing a lap of appreciation with his squad at Bramall Lane during which he appeared to wipe away tears following a 1-0 defeat to Preston in the final home match of the season watched by a crowd of 28,000. Almost as if he was anticipating this may be his farewell.
The result confirmed the play-offs are out are reach, leaving United 11th in the table, six points behind Derby in the sixth and final spot. Victory for seventh-placed Preston, however, still offers the Whites a chance to overhaul them.
Wilder threw diplomacy to the wind and welled up with emotion to reveal he is not prepared to stay at Bramall Lane a minute longer than necessary unless there is a major change of attitude from above and the required resources made available to him.
Given that Prince Abdullah’s takeover bid was launched in January and is being bitterly opposed by partner McCabe who says he is prepared to seek litigation, it is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.
A growing frustration lifelong Blades fan Wilder, a former player and even ballboy, is experiencing has been bubbling to the surface for months. It finally erupted as he criticised the co-owners for leaving him as the lone public voice of the club while they engage in a prolonged and increasingly bitter battle behind the scenes for control.
“I'm not in war with any of the owners, I'm the voice of the football club though,” he explained. “No disrespect, but you interview me, you guys have seen what's going off as well, and I’m the only voice that comes out and that voice isn't going to change because maybe somebody leans on me and says ‘you can't say that’ – because I've had that.
“I had it at Oxford. I stayed a year that I shouldn't have stayed. I'm not saying I'm not happy, I absolutely adore it here. I’m frustrated and gutted.”
Wilders insists that for him and his staff to remain the attitude from the top has to change – confirming public perception there has been neither the will nor the required financial backing made available this season for a serious promotion challenge. He has simply run out of patience as the task of preparing for next season begins. “I think a lot of people have got a lot of decisions to make,” he said.
Almost certainly including what to do about the presence of Jan Van Winckel, appointed to the board by Prince Abdullah and who has a UEFA-pro coaching licence. On the Belgian's arrival McCabe blocked an attempt by his Saudi royal partner to appoint Van Winckel to the club's technical board which numbers Wilder, No2 Alan Knill, head of recruitment Paul Mitchell, academy chief Travis Binnion and head of administration Carl Shieber.
“I won’t be a patsy for anybody, I’ll go about my job and do it honestly and diligently as my staff do, you've seen the players do. We'll say it as it is,” said Wilder. Adding: “It isn’t a case of me stamping my feet and saying you must write a cheque for us to improve. It's the general direction and where we're going for me to do my job properly.”
Nonetheless quality is key and working with the fifth smallest budget in the Championship has limitations which were clear for all to see in the latter half of the season as results became inconsistent.
“I think we’ve exhausted the pond [pool] of players that we have signed from,” confirmed Wilder who now wants to attract better quality which inevitably means bigger transfer fees and higher wages. Something that McCabe volunteered himself in February during a question and answer fundraising event for the Sheffield Scanner appeal at Sheffield University with Wilder sat by his side on stage.
“I’m not saying that we’ll never ever dip into that but I think now everybody knows what we need to do. Most importantly the supporters, they’re not daft. I speak the same language as them.”
Fiscal restraint meant United returned to the Championship after a six-year absence with only two players who had current experience at this level, summer recruits, defender Richard Stearman and striker Clayton Donaldson.
Ever since the Blades have been manfully out-performing with a squad made up of almost entirely lower league players who topped the table twice. An infusion of real quality in key areas would have almost certainly been the difference from ultimately finishing as also-rans.
“I think I know what we need,” said Wilder. “The quality of that doesn't get decided by me it gets decided by other people. I'd love to take it forward, there are a lot of good things happening amongst the supporters and amongst the staff and the players.”
“To take it to the next level it's out of my hands. Last year Matty Done has done great for us [Stefan] Scougall, McNulty did really well for us; you move on, you try to improve. At what level, that isn't down to me.
“I want to improve, I want to use the experience of being in this division and I think we will. As a squad as a staff we're honest, we’re hard working and we are humble. We know we haven’t got all the answers but we feel with the experience, subjectively and objectively this season we will as staff be better.
“The players, the likes of Fleck, O’Connell, David Brooks, George Baldock, Enda Stevens, first season in the Championship, they will be better for the experience but we’ve got to improve.”
Wilder was anxious not to appear as if he was avoiding any responsibility for the campaign’s failings while taking credit for its successes. “Some things have got to change 100 per cent. It's not a secret, it's an issue that's been rumbling now for quite a while.
“I’ve got to say I'm not trying to deflect; we've lost today I'm not trying to say it's this, that and the owners. First and foremost 100 per cent we will look at ourselves, what we could have done better what we need to do going forward, myself and the players and the staff and from obviously the last third of the season.
“We've just come up short in a little bit of experience, a little bit of quality and a bit of know-how. I don’t want come up short for myself because I want to achieve and I'm ambitious. I don't want to come up short for the players that I brought into the football club, who have improved and worked extremely hard to take their game to the next level.
“Most importantly, 28,000 people here. They want to see progression, they want to see harmony, direction just as much as me.”
On defeat to Preston, Wilder said: “We’ve come a very long way in a short space of time and for us to take it to the 45th game, I don’t think anybody would have expected that. Ultimately we’re disappointed today that we didn’t finish of our home campaign [with a win].”
“We had possibly more good home performances than results.” He added: “Yet again [we] made a poor decision in the middle of the park and the ball ends up in the back of our net and then we’re chasing the game.”
Whatever reaction Wilder receives from his bosses, unless it’s positive the Blades boss simply doesn’t care. “I’m not going to say one thing and another thing happens,” he said. “I walk through the front door and I say it as it is and when I leave, when that time is, I’ll walk out through the front door.”
Which is why United fans almost to every man, woman and child have taken the man to their hearts ever since his arrival in May 2016. No-one wants him to leave but he also reflects the views of the vast majority in the stands. Which is why if it comes to it supporters will back his principled position all the way out of Bramall Lane and wish him all the bestl for the future.
There is an irony that Wilder was appointed to reinvent and unite players and a club with it's supporters who had become disconnected after five years in League One and a shambolic season under Nigel Adkins. Wilder has succeeded spectacularly and having long since established 100 per cent support in the stands and the dressing room is being undone by divisions between the owners.
There will be no shortage of job offers. West Brom, Southampton, Premier League Leicester and now Sunderland who yesterday sacked Chris Coleman, are already circling. During a dramatic day The Black Cats were also sold to a consortium led by billionaire Stewart Donald who forged a close relationship with Wilder when he was manager at Oxford United.
Donald, a U’s supporter, invested in the club and was a shirt sponsor. He currently owns National League Eastleigh where the Blades first team played a pre-season friendly and is likely to view Wilder as the man to rebuild Sunderland, relegated to League One, and return them to the top flight. A daunting job and a drop down the league ladder but one Wilder might relish at a well supported fallen giant where there is huge untapped potential.
But if Wilder does leave woe betide Blades fans’ reaction to Prince Abdullah and McCabe and the lasting damage it will do at the Lane. Which is perhaps the best hope it will not come to that.