CHRIS WILDER’S story at Sheffield United is remarkable. So too is Danny Hall’s herculean and fascinating account of it in He’s one of our own.
Books about football are published with monotonous regularity and many of them are just that. Not this one, especially if you are a fully signed up Blade. The story of how Wilder transformed a club on its knees is well documented. Or at least you may have thought it was before reading ‘He’s one of our own’.
A man who at the end of April as he walked around Bramall Lane with the players and his staff on a lap of appreciation after the last home match of the Championship season, was in tears. Believing he may well be waving goodbye after becoming disillusioned by the direction of the club under warring co-owners Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
A fascinating behind-the-scenes insight illuminated by exclusive contributions from some of the leading actors. Not least Wilder himself. And in an unusual departure, personal perspectives from Blades fans.
Sam Parry, who watches from the Kop, offers a schizophrenic exchange with his alter ego that will resonate with all die-hard Unitedites.
But where to begin? Ask any Blade which moment gave them the most joy from last season’s return to Championship football and there will be one answer.
WHO'S BOUNCING NOW?
Mark Duffy after restoring United's lead at Hillsborough to silence Sheffield Wednesday fans in the midst of celebrating an equaliser.
United midfielder Mark Duffy enshrined his place in United history with THAT goal in the Steel City derby at Hillsborough. Famously taking the spring, quite literally, out of the step of Sheffield Wednesday supporters and providing YouTube footage that is as embarrassing to Owls as it is hilarious to Blades.
Wilder says: “Someone showed me a comment from a Wednesday fan when I took over, about their manager being Champions League and United's being from the Meadowhall Sunday League. I remembered that and managed to ram it down their throats when we beat them 4-2 at Hillsborough, on that day in September!"
Duffy visited Bramall Lane in an opposition shirt on a miserable night United fans are still trying to forget. A 1-0 defeat to Burton Albion, managed by former Blades boss Nigel Clough who was pitting his wits against Nigel Adkins, the man who succeeded him so disastrously.
Duffy, now a firm favourite at the Lane, doesn't pull his punches when recollecting that evening. “The standards had dropped so far from what I knew of coming to Bramall Lane. Basically, it was just crap.”
Then there was the December night when Wilder, a lifelong Blades fan and former player, still guiding Northampton to the League Two title, organised a Christmas party for the Cobblers’ staff. Being Wilder, where else to stage it than in than an executive box at Bramall Lane as United beat Coventry City 1-0. But the fare served up left the man who was to be in charge just a few months later, cold.
Hall reveals: “Alan Knill – by this point Wilder’s No.2 at Sixfields – remembers the game as “boring” with fans in front of the box talking to each other while the game was going on. The box owner recalls calling Wilder to see how the game was, remarking on how noisy the place sounded. The Cobblers party had left the game at half-time and decamped to the Railway pub across the road.”
Moment Paul Coutts' season was over after this tackle by Burton Albion's Marvin Sordell.
Paul Coutts whose determination won him a reprieve after having been transfer-listed on Wilder’s arrival to become the centrepiece of his League One title winners, has plenty to say about the training methods adopted by Adkins.
That season, of course, Burton were promoted and having survived their first Championship campaign were then joined by United.
It was at the Pirelli Stadium in November 2017 that United returned to the top of the Championship table for the second time after beating Clough’s team 3-1. It will, however, forever be remembered for the the tackle by Burton’s Marvin Sordell which broke Coutts’ right leg bringing a premature end to his season. Hall describes the sombre mood within the United camp which is perfectly represented by the recollection of defender Richard Stearman.
United co-owner Kevin McCabe's chance meeting with Chris Wilder led to the Blades dramatic transformation.
Wilder’s acceptance of the job at Bramall Lane might not have happened but for a chance meting with United co-owner Kevin McCabe in the Copthorne Hall adjacent to the ground.
“Wilder returned to Sheffield to present the trophy at a local Sunday League cup final. He was in the bar of Bramall Lane’s Copthorne Hotel when McCabe, convening a board meeting to discuss Adkins’ future, walked in,” writes Hall.
“I thought, ‘I need to talk to that lad’,” McCabe later admitted. “It’s funny how things happen in life.”
Wilder and and Knill, his trusted No2 at the Lane, go together like fish and chips and Hall compares their managerial relationship to that of the legendary Brian Clough and Peter Taylor who first met as apprentices at Middlesbrough. Wilder and Knill did the same at Southampton. The chapter in which Hall talks to Knill, a very private man, is particularly fascinating. The former Rotherham United boss who appointed Wilder as his No2 at Bury but admits he is much more comfortable in the assistant role, describes himself as good cop to Wilder’s bad cop. “Sometimes I have to reign him in,” says Knill of the man whose deep-seated drive to win can sometimes get the better of him.
Surprisingly, despite their long acquaintance and intertwining management roles, Knill reveals that he and Wilder are not bosom buddies. “It probably helps as well that our relationship is just a working one; we're not going out for meals or spending a lot of time together outside of football.
Alan Knill, Sheffield United manager Wilder's trusted right-hand man, enjoys a long-standing working relationship with his boss but, surprisingly, that's as far as it goes.
He adds: “We're not best mates and have different personalities; Chris has a big circle of friends, but that'd never be me. I like to stay out of the limelight. We're good cop, bad cop I suppose. I'm always good cop, though!”
Knill explains how after a difficult start to their first season in charge, how the switch to 3-5-2 came about. The formation, using central defenders as attacking wing-backs, which formed the bedrock of for United to claim the League One title with a club-record 100 points and endured throughout the Championship campaign.
Club historian James Garrett underlines one of the key ingredients off the pitch which has aided Wilder’s success. “He knows people’s names, what their wives are called, what their kids are called. It's simple, really, but it works.”
Former Blades defender Kevin Gage explains why he thinks it’s a common mistake to lump Wilder’s management style with that of Dave Bassett who both men played under. Gage has his own comparison which may surprise many Blades.
Defender Jake Wright has signed for the Blades boss at three different clubs and speaks highly of Wilder so long as he is in a good mood.
Defender Jake Wright knows Wilder better than most having also been signed by him at Oxford and Halifax and speaks highly of his boss…so long as he is in a good mood.
“I think I've probably played more games for Chris than any other player, and personality-wise I don't think he's changed at all from the days in the Conference. He's always liked getting involved and has never done things from the outside. He takes fewer sessions now, because he has a brilliant assistant in Knilly, but he's always involved with the banter just like he was in the Conference.”
Wright adds: “The biggest compliment I can pay him is that he's very enjoyable to play under, because we're not outside for hours in training and sessions are short and sharp, and hard. He's enjoyable to be around, when he's not in a bad mood, and I'm sure that one day he'll manage right at the top.”
And what of Wilder himself? Probably one of the best illustrations of why the anthem from which Hall’s book takes it title, ‘he’s one of our own’, regularly rings out from adoring fans, comes from his recollection of the day United’s return to the Championship was secured. Ironically at his former club Northampton. United scored and over-excited Blades fans invaded the pitch.
“One of the biggest things I can remember is a fan sprinting to the dugouts and jumping all over us after Flecky scored… but then they cleared the pitch.
Blades fan Richard Glossop grabs a selfie after invading the pitch during the promotion-clincher at Northampton and being ushered into the dugout by Wilder.
“If he went back to his seat, he was going to get nicked by the police. He looked at me and said ‘Chris, what do I do?’ and I told him to stay where he was. I had to look after him because he could have been any of my mates… or me, if I wasn’t the manager! So I kept him in the dugout and the cheeky get even asked me for a selfie! But I had to make sure he didn’t get nicked, on probably the best day of his life following United.”
United enjoyed a flying start to their return to the Championship, topping the table twice. Despite budget restraints, the Blades finished just six points short of the play-offs. Wilder, not adverse to throwing his toys out of the pram, condemned his players in February as "maxed out" when publically writing off their play-off chances after a 1-0 defeat at Hull City.
He ripped into them 15 months earlier at Charlton Athletic when his team in total control, allowed the Londoners to snatch a point in the 93rd minute. Blades fans were taken aback by the vitriol against a team that was unbeaten in 15 matches. Hall reveals how the manager's black mood was lifted by Unitedites he bumped into after retreating to a pub in Greenwich after the match.
Wilder says: “I have always given 100 percent for every club I've been involved in but I can’t get away from it; the highs are at United are a lot higher but the lows are a lot lower, too. Being surrounded by people that have followed the club for years, you feel the highs and lows with them.”
Chris Wilder, managing the club he supports, has played for and was even a ball boy at Bramall Lane.
It is impossible to do this book, forwarded by ex-Blades striker Keith Edwards and including the thoughts of living legend Tony Currie, justice by merely cherry-picking parts of it as I have done.
Hopefully you have a flavour of what is a terrific work by Danny Hall. An extraordinary read for any Blades fan who has experienced Sheffield United under an extraordinary manager.
To order a copy of Danny Hall's He's one of our own, published earlier this month, click on the image of the book here.