Wednesday 11 December 2019

Wilder's odyssey is an extraordinary tale

Sheffield United's forward-thinking manager is wrongly tagged a journeyman

Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder. Photo: Getty Images
Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder. Photo: Getty Images

Jim White

As he prepares his Sheffield United side to take on Wolves with the chance of going fifth in the Premier League, it is intriguing to recall where Chris Wilder was 11 years ago. In December 2008, he took over at an Oxford United side 13th in the Conference who had just been deducted five points for fielding an unregistered player. In his first game in charge he saw them lose to Salisbury and lose his best player with a broken leg.

As football journeys go, Wilder's upward trajectory since that moment, encompassing five promotions with three clubs, is extraordinary. Though there are those who, watching him in the dugout that day as Oxford floundered, are not surprised.

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"As a chairman of a lower-league club you know there are one of two conversations you are eventually going to have with your manager," says Kelvin Thomas, the then-chairman of Oxford, who hired Wilder. "Either the one when things have been going wrong and you have to part, or the one where things have been going right and someone else comes in for them. With Chris I always knew it was going to be the latter."

Though when he started in management, it would have taken the boldest of clairvoyants to predict Wilder would end up as one of the most coveted coaches. After a playing career that defines the term "journeyman", encompassing stops at clubs such as Rotherham, Bury and Notts County, he took up his first managerial appointment at non-League Alfreton Town. There he landed his first title: in 2002 he won, among four trophies in one season, the Northern Counties East League Premier Division.

His success brought him to the attention of Halifax Town, where he stayed for six years, battling almost permanent financial crisis, until the club were liquidated in 2008. After a brief spell at Bury as assistant to his own current assistant Alan Knill, he applied for the job at Oxford.

"There was a lot on his CV to make you think he was the right man," recalls Thomas. "He was still young, but had a lot of experience. And it was experience in clubs that had faced real financial crisis; he knew how to do things on a budget. At interview we were blown away by the fact he knew every single member of our squad inside out." It was that attention to detail, too, that immediately impressed the players at the Kassam Stadium.

"His level of planning was incredible," says James Constable, his centre-forward at Oxford. "We'd get seven or eight-page booklets on how the opposition would set up and what your job would be for each match. At that level, it was remarkable. We'd do so much work on the opposition, minimising their strengths. It made a massive difference."

But Wilder was not simply a statistics nerd. He nurtured a significant team spirit, relishing joining in kickabouts on the training ground. And he recruited well, signing a specific type of player.

"I remember sitting down with him to work through targets that first summer," recalls Thomas. "And I realised everyone he wanted to bring in was the captain of their club. In order to get out of that division, he wanted a team of leaders."

Wilder knew it would be tough. And, schooled as a player under managers such as Sam Allardyce (at Notts County) and Dave Bassett (at Sheffield United) he took a pragmatic approach to tactics.

"No one has ever played their way out of the Conference," says Constable. "But he definitely wasn't long ball. He was very flexible, according to the opposition. Whatever style he played, he made sure we all knew exactly what we should be doing within that shape. He was incredibly thorough."

His realism was evident in some of his public pronouncements. Jerome Sale, the BBC reporter, recalls him saying early on, "You can forget your Milk Cup", a reference to the finest moment in Oxford's history, the League Cup win in 1986. "Some of the fans thought he was belittling the club's heritage," he says. "Actually what he meant was: we can't rely on history. And he was right."

In his first full season in charge, he took Oxford to the Conference play-off final, in front of 36,000 of the club's fans. The night before the game against York, he took a call from one of the many managers whose advice he regularly sought, Alex Ferguson, who gave him a couple of tips on how to negotiate the big occasion. They worked: Oxford won 3-1.

"I remember at that Wembley game seeing him running up the line celebrating when we scored," recalls Constable. "He'd react like that in training. His passion was infectious. We didn't have the best team, but our spirit was incredible. The way he developed that, it was almost subconscious, you didn't realise you were being moulded."

Back in League Two, the next season Wilder had to negotiate the return of hostilities with Oxford's fierce rivals Swindon Town. His manner in the lead up to the derby, Sale remembers, was indicative of his ability to deal with pressure.

"They were managed by Paolo Di Canio and were flying. In the week before the game, Di Canio was making out like it was World War Three. Wilder downplayed it. He gave the opposition manager nothing for his team talk. It took the pressure off the players. And Oxford won at Swindon for the first time in 38 years."

Behind the scenes, however, things were not going as well. Thomas left when the club was sold to Ian Lenagan, later chairman of the Football League. Despite Wilder hovering on the fringes of the play-offs on a budget half the size his successors at the Kassam have enjoyed, he did not see eye-to-eye with Lenagan over the finances. Needing funds to rebuild, Wilder agreed the sale of Constable to Swindon. The Oxford captain refused to go. While that sealed his legend among local fans, Wilder's apparent treachery enraged many. Some even petitioned Lenagan to fire him. In February 2014, sensing he was no longer welcome, Wilder made the move to Northampton Town.

"It was a bizarre end to his time at Oxford," recalls Sale. "He managed the team against Torquay, didn't do the post-match interview, got in his car and drove to Northampton. The chairman didn't know where he'd gone."

While Oxford sat fifth in League Two, Northampton were in the relegation zone. Within three months, in what might be regarded as his finest achievement in management, he had negotiated his new employers up to 12th place.

The next season, he faced a perfect storm of obstacles: Revenue and Customs issued a winding up order to the club over an unpaid tax bill; David Cardoza, the former Northampton chairman, was embroiled in a row over a £10.5m loan from the local council to rebuild a stand at the Sixfields stadium; the accounts were in meltdown. Wilder, along with all the backroom staff, was not paid for three months. And the players' wages were being met by the Professional Footballers' Association. Yet somehow he won promotion.

"Sure, it helped we were doing well," says Sam Hoskins, the centre-forward Wilder signed from Yeovil. "But to keep us focused was massive. He kept everyone onside. Even if you weren't in the team, he made you feel a vital member of the group. He was a brilliant man-manager."

As the crisis abated, Wilder did something almost unprecedented in football history: the manager recruited a new chairman. He brokered the deal which allowed his old colleague from Oxford, Kelvin Thomas, to take over the club. But Thomas was not able to hold back the inevitable, and the season after promotion, Wilder was able to mix affiliation with ambition when he was offered the chance to take on the club he supports, Sheffield United. Two promotions later, as Wilder sits comfortably in the Premier League, Thomas can claim he always saw it coming.

"People say he's an old-fashioned football man," he says. "That is to underestimate him completely. Chris gets tarred with that nonsense because of his Yorkshire background. What he expects out of players is very similar to what Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp demand. That's not an old-fashioned trait. As a manager, he's incredibly forward thinking, always encouraging his staff to ensure they are at the forefront of the industry. Any club in Europe should be looking at Chris Wilder. If I was chairman of Sheffield United I'd be expecting the call at any time."

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