CHRIS WILDER said he couldn’t see it coming. Spoken with the manager’s hat on.
Had the lifelong Blades fan been anywhere else at Bramall Lane other than the technical area earlier this week, he wouldn’t have been so confident.
One goal to the good – Leon Clarke’s first since New Year’s day with the aid of a deflection – and into added time, what could possibly go wrong? How many occasions over the years have Sheffield United come undone in the death throes of matches they should have won? Winning 1-0 is rarely a comfortable experience at the Lane. Against a team managed by former Blades boss Neil Warnock the danger is magnified ten-fold. That’s a huge part of his make-up.
United under Warnock were famed for never throwing in the towel. True to form up popped Anthony Pilkington in the 92nd minute to rob the Blades of all three points and bolster second-placed Cardiff’s bid for Premier League football. United denied the visitors a club record-equalling ninth successive victory but they still extended their unbeaten run to 13 matches.
“Under the circumstances that must be our best point of the season,” said Warnock who admitted his team were second best for most of a fascinating encounter. “By gum, we’ve got big hearts. It’s just like we’ve won the World Cup in our dressing room.” A dressing room that included former Blades boss Kevin Blackwell who was also No2 to Warnock at the Lane.
In fact it was an illustration of football’s musical chairs on the touchline last Monday night. A combination of three Sheffield United managers, one assistant (Alan Knill), two Bury bosses and a No2 at Gigg Lane (Warnock, Knill and Wilder), two former Rotherham bosses (Warnock and Knill) and two ex-Leeds managers (Blackwell and Warnock).
Promotion is Warnock’s to lose. Cardiff, five points ahead and a match in hand of Fulham in third, and leaders Wolves who arrive six points ahead for a must-watch in the Welsh capital tonight, followed by a trip to fourth-placed Aston Villa next Tuesday. Avoid defeat and they are almost there. If they do miss out it is likely Cardiff will finish third and with United chasing sixth place, the possibility of a play-off semi-final showdown with extra spice.
Should promotion be won by the end of the month or the end of May, Warnock will inevitably describe it as the greatest feat of his irrepressible management career. He says it every time promotion comes around. This time, however, it will be a milestone which will cement in history one of football’s most extraordinary men. He will become the only member of his profession to have won eight promotions in the English game.
The irony being that if that record were ever be surpassed on current form Wilder, chasing his third back-to-back promotion and 19 years Warnock’s junior, is at the moment the likeliest candidate to do it.
The similarities are striking. "On our wage bill, when you look at the teams we're competing against, we really shouldn't be where we are. There's always pressure to win games, but I don't feel there's pressure on us as much as the other teams. Some of the other teams should go up. They have to go up, really.”
Wilder comparing budgets versus performance between United and the Championship’s big spenders? No, Warnock talking recently about the very same as his Cardiff look to finish the job he started.
Wilder is considered by just about everyone with a connection to Bramall Lane as a perfect fit for the club. Warnock, lifelong Blades fan and former manager has found a second home in South Wales where he is adored by Cardiff fans. Just witness how he orchestrated his celebration with them at the Bramall Lane end, amid jeers from the Kop, a conductor and his choir exercising perfect timing.
United supporters have taken Wilder to their hearts because of his honest, no nonsense approach to football and the way he communicates with supporters which is equally genuine. A mirror image of Warnock in South Wales.
Wilder arrived at a club in disarray and completed a remarkable transformation in just a season to win the League One title and end the Blades six-year stay in the third tier.
Warnock took the reigns at Cardiff in October 2016 with City second bottom of the Championship table and only two wins from 11 matches. They finished mid-table with 62 points. What might have happened if he'd been in charge from the start? This season, having been able to shape his own squad, they stand on the brink of the top flight.
The Press love Wilder for his straight-talking and the guarantee that an interview will always produce a line to go on. The same is applicable to Warnock. After signing a two-year extension to his contract in February he told reporters: “I got 38 points with Sheffield United [in the Premier League] which wasn’t bad really and we didn’t do anything illegal like West Ham did with Tevez.”
Wilder began his management career in non-league football and has patiently built it to where he is today. At the age of 50 he is regarded as one of the hottest properties in management at Championship level. Warnock, 69, has seven promotions under his belt, including taking United to the top flight in 2006. If he repeats the feat with the Bluebirds he will take his place in history.
Both have matching work ethics and don’t suffer fools gladly. Neither minces their words but it has taken advancing years to mellow Warnock who knows only too well how to work the media. Wilder is much less controversial but wears his heart on his sleeve. Away from the heat of battle both men can be charmers.
They may share the basics but here is where they do differ. Warnock has adapted the implementation of his tried and trusted methods for the evolving modern game. Wilder is a willing student of it, a visitor to the university in Manchester knowns as the Etihad Stadium, with a more open and progressive approach to the possibilities. Circumstance means he might not be able to benefit right now but it’s constantly developing in the locker for the future.
Several choruses of “Chrissy Wilder, he’s one of our own” rang out with extra gusto before United had victory snatched from their grasp. It won’t have been lost on Warnock who never experienced similar confirmation of his place in Unitedites’ hearts during his roller-coater seven-and-a-half years at the Lane.
Which is a shame. His abrasive, forthright style, like Marmite, will always divide opinion. Addictive to some, for others the taste is acquired but undeniably an iconic brand. Criticise him all you like but his record speaks for itself.
The red and white half of Sheffield should be proud to call Warnock one of our own.