SUDDENLY the outside world has woken up to the phenomenon that is Chris Wilder. He has even been mentioned as a valid candidate for the Barclays manager of the year award to be announced next week.
A cheerleader for that is non other than Martin Samuel, the Daily Mail’s West Ham-supporting chief sports writer who locked swords with the Blades during the Carlos Tevez scandal.
As Samuel predicted, Wilder will have to wait for another opportunity as Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, the current recipient, is tipped to retain the gong after being shortlisted alongside Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp, Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino and, interestingly, Nuno Espirito Santo who took Wolves to the Premier League last season and is guaranteed a seventh-placed finish.
But even if Wilder’s extraordinary record is now coming to the attention of a wider audience, – since his first Football League match in 2010 he has won 196 games in the top four tiers of English football, 27 more than any other manager – his ability is still not fully appreciated as he prepares to smash another glass ceiling.
The Sheffield United boss is largely painted in national media circles with the same brush as two men who have successfully sat in the driving seat before him at Bramall Lane, Dave Bassett and Neil Warnock. With all due respect to the them, Wilder is much more than an exponent of siege mentality and up and at ’em, blood and thunder approaches, no matter how effective they were.
If Bassett danced to disco and Warnock jive, Wilder likes a bop with the rest of them but when it comes to getting the job done, while taking those attributes on board, he prefers a disciplined and more cultured art form of expression through movement. It’s just that he hasn’t had the stage to demonstrate it. Until now.
What Sean Dyche has achieved at Burnley is hugely admired by Wilder. Having twice won promotion to the Premier League within three seasons and kept the Clarets there for the last three campaigns, Dyche has done a wonderful job on a relatively limited budget. A proper football man as Wilder would say.
No doubt most Blades fans, under the same financial circumstances, would be content for a similar outcome three years from now. But I would suggest by that time, if not before, Wilder would cut the frustrated figure of a man in his mid-fifties, knowing he is capable of more than just treading water amongst football’s elite. One of our own most certainly. But he hasn’t risen through the ranks by sheer graft alone. Which really is what makes him stand out from the crowd.
Wilder is a great student of the game and a cerebral one at that. Having learned the hard way how get the basics right – GCSE’s and A levels if you like – he has now got his first class honours degree having taken United into the Premier League and is about to embark on a PhD. Wilder is no stranger to the Etihad Stadium, a disciple of what Guardiola is doing there; Klopp and Pochettino as well.
National media previously reluctant, other than by way of token gesture, to acknowledge an extraordinary resurgence under Wilder at Bramall Lane, are now being forced to confront it after United’s return to football’s top table. But largely in a stereotypical dark, satanic mills sort of way by the more popular Press.
He is being belatedly introduced to the masses as an honest, working-class bloke from Sheffield who still catches the bus to visit his old mates in the local pub. A man whose football gift is to take lower league players and mould them into an effective force.
Accurate, of course, and admirable attributes that have stood him in good stead. A perfect fit for what is widely regarded as an unfashionable club he has also played for and supported since a boy. One which many, apart from Blades fans, already believe is destined for the drop.
But add to that what is not often spoken about outside of Sheffield. Terrific man management skills, which although uncompromising always win respect, all-important character assessment, tactical awareness, often innovative, which rarely lets him down and a willingness to embrace the latest technology to try and gain advantage.
Before securing their return to the top flight, United captain Billy Sharp, said: “The gaffer has been driving us for the last three seasons since he has been in charge and hopefully we can get promotion before he goes to PSG.”
A remark made tongue-in-cheek but not as far fetched as some would think. There is absolutely no reason to doubt Wilder’s tried and trusted and, most importantly, evolving methods won’t produce results in top flight football. With one proviso.
Until now he has had precious little financial help, which given the achievements across a remarkable managerial career makes him football gold. Every man, however, has his limit. Wilder’s ability to defy not competing on a level playing field has finally met its match.
If United want to stay in the top flight, rather than just visit, give him the clout and it’s a safe bet he will do just that. It doesn’t mean silly money, rather enough to translate to a higher level from what got United out of League One and the Championship.
Unless another far more ambitious benefactor arrives with wealth to match, the manager won’t be expecting a huge war chest to buy world class players. But likewise, journeymen from the lower leagues won’t cut it on a sustainable level at the summit of English football. No, Wilder will surely be looking at top-end Championship players and those already at Premier League clubs but not enjoying regular football. Inevitably he will also have to turn to the foreign market, something which has so far been resisted.
Of course, that path is always a gamble, but thankfully for United, much less so in the hands of man who so far has made few mistakes. Unlike previous seasons and because United now stand at the gates of the Premier League, it still means serious money to fund transfers and wages. Bargain basement, and with the greatest of respect to players such as 31-year-old David McGoldrick who has been an absolute star, just won’t suffice. Without it and United will only further back the bookies’ conviction that they are one of the relegation favourites.
At Wilder’s relentless pace of advancement, it is also likely that United just won’t have the wherewithal to keep pace with his personal progress. But hopefully the Stocksbridge-born boss will be at the Lane for a few years to come, establishing the Blades as a Premier League force.
Perhaps his greatest challenge won’t arrive until an eventual parting of the ways, sad though it will be. At United he is king. Should name players start arriving with wages and egos to match they will enter an environment where Big Time Charlies will never be tolerated. At other top flight clubs where that is not the case and headstrong, multi-millionaire player power is well established, Wilder would be seriously tested in an effort to enforce his well-proven methods to achieve results.
Beating the odds and clearing hurdles is, however, what Wilder’s managerial experience has been all about. The maxim you get out what you put in is certainly true in his case. United, heading towards their next big adventure, stand testament to that.
Wilder’s extraordinary managerial record
2001-02: Northern Counties East Football League Premier Division; League Cup; Presidents Cup; Derbyshire Senior Cup.
2002-08: In charge for more than 300 matches before club was liquidated in 2008. Defied catastrophic financial difficulties to reach the Conference play-off final in 2006. Went within 10 minutes of reaching the Football League, beaten by Hereford United 3-2 after extra time at Leicester City’s ground.
2008: Assistant to Alan Knill for five months at Bury. The Shakers, were second in League Two when he left.
2008-14: Reached Conference Premier play-offs in 2010, beating York City 3-1 in final at Wembley to return club to Football League.
2014–16: Won League Two title in 2015-16 despite club being in such financial turmoil for a time it couldn’t pay wage bill. Voted LMA League Two manager of the year.
2016–17: League One title and voted LMA League One manager of the year as well as receiving a special achievement award; 2018-19 Championship runners-up and promoted to Premier League. Voted EFL Championship manager of the year.