Sheffield United’s Chris Wilder: The Old School Manager With New Ideas
Chris Wilder bounds up the stairs and declines an invitation to sample the exotic array of coffees available from the shiny new espresso machine sitting proudly on a corner table. It is shortly before 10 am on Friday morning at Sheffield United’s suburban hilltop training ground and slate grey rain clouds obscure the neat rows of semi-detached houses tumbling down to the heart of the city below.
Wilder, though, has little need of a caffeine boost as he surveys the scene from the high veldt of fifth in the Premier League, two places above Manchester United before Sunday’s meeting between the pair at Bramall Lane.
Three years and two promotions after his installation in South Yorkshire, Sheffield United’s manager jokes about “riding the wave” with the small group of reporters gathered for his weekly media debrief but first makes a point of shaking everyone’s hand and politely asking them individual questions while making engaging small talk. He is fresh off the phone from a chat to his old friend Steve Parkin, now Sunderland’s assistant manager and shakes his head at football’s fragility. “How has a club as big as that fallen into League One?” he muses.
League One was Sheffield United’s habitat when Wilder took over in the ninth year of their own top-tier exile. Among his first acts was the ripping down of motivational slogans festooning the training ground with particular disdain reserved for the message “Welcome to Work.” Many coaches swear by such psychological gambits but, as a nonconformist in an increasingly uniform world, Wilder delights in challenging popular convention and deemed them patronizing.
The 52-year-old has been around the block a few times, acquiring an intense dislike of artifice and spin or, as he terms it, “bullshit” along the way. Life in the eye of financial storms as the manager at Alfreton, Halifax and, later, Northampton – where he went unpaid for three months – acquainted him with the experience of having his card declined at a supermarket checkout and perhaps explains why he is not getting carried away by United’s stunning start to the season. “Points wise, there’s not a lot of difference between fifth and 15th,” he says. “We’ve got some tough challenges ahead.”
For the moment, though, Wilder is being lauded as the Premier League’s most original tactical innovator since Pep Guardiola while fielding sometimes exclusively British/Irish starting XIs trailing deep non-league and lower league roots. French striker Lys Mousset – whose orange Lamborghini stands out in the cramped training ground car park – is an extremely rare foreign import, while a nucleus of the team were either free transfers or cost less than £1m. “Ten of the 11 that played our last game [a draw] at Tottenham were in the Championship with us last season,” says Wilder. “But then not a lot of us here had any Premier League experience before August.”
That apparent shortfall failed to prevent him from devising a complicated yet highly effective – and entertaining – system revolving around overlapping center-halves, recently praised to the skies by, among others, Jürgen Klopp and Marcelo Bielsa.
Wilder may be the poster boy for the merits of mud-on-boots localism in an otherwise largely global league yet, in some ways, his success is quintessentially continental. Significantly, he deploys the sort of intense training ground drilling favored by leading European coaches – Louis van Gaal and Rafael Benítez are prime examples – but often shunned by British managers fearful of bored players turning rebellious. He and his influential, thoughtful assistant Alan Knill are forensic analysts of games and tactics with their research prompting the modification of last season’s 3-4-1-2 formation to a slightly more defensive out-of-possession 3-5-2 designed to thwart opponents playing between the lines.
“We do a lot of work on the shape,” emphasizes midfielder John Lundstram, a one-time Everton reject who has played in all four divisions. “A lot of drills focused on getting the ball wide, on overlapping, on creating overloads and getting the triangles right. We work a lot on the strikers’ movement and getting midfielders into the box.”
It helps that the nucleus of the squad have been together since League One days and the players socialize on a near-daily basis, sharing countless coffees and dinners. “We don’t disperse after training, it’s terribly tight-knit, we’re very close,” reflects Lundstram. “There’s not a lot of teams like that.”
Wilder’s own rise from childhood Blades fan growing up in Sheffield’s Stocksbridge district to ballboy, first-team full-back under Dave Bassett and now manager – complete with Blades tattoo – is similarly rare. So, too is his sheer straight-talking candor in an often disingenuous industry. “The manager is never less than honest,” says George Baldock, the right wing-back. “If he’s happy he tells you; if he’s not he lets you know. If we get ahead of ourselves he’ll come down on us like a ton of bricks. He keeps us so grounded and I think that honesty, desire and fight can be seen in our performances.”
Although Wilder does not travel around Sheffield by public transport quite as much as he once did, he still sometimes uses the bus stop near his home – “I’ll be on a bus in about four hours’ time” he reports – and regularly socializes with old friends from the pub team he once coached.
His refusal to acquire the affectations of Premier League power, let alone turn remotely precious, endeared him to both the club’s former owner Kevin McCabe and his Saudi Arabian successor Prince Abdullah. Indeed the pair’s affection for Wilder served as a rare point of agreement as the Blades’ one-time co-owners fought a bruising court case – and the manager walked a diplomatic tightrope. It concluded with McCabe in the cold and United being taken over by its new chairman, Prince Abdullah’s 26-year-old son-in-law Prince Musad, who is endeavoring to drum up investment from Saudi.
Given that, under the terms of the high court ruling, Prince Abdullah must buy the club’s £40m property portfolio – including the stadium, adjacent hotel and training ground – by next July it is imperative that relegation is avoided this spring.
Supporters Wilder chats to during post-match drinks at that Bramall Lane hotel will testify the manager wears the pressure reassuringly well but he is quick to acknowledge the role a certain former Manchester United counterpart played in getting him to this point.
“It shows the class of the man that when Sir Alex Ferguson was winning Premier League and European titles he took time out to help young managers like me,” he says. “Sir Alex used to call and give me little pointers. He even phoned the night before the Conference promotion play-off final with Oxford [against York in 2010] and passed on a couple of tips that helped us get the win. I don’t know what would have happened to Oxford as a club if we’d lost that day – or where I’d be now.”
Little did Sheffield United fans know the part that near decade old 3-1 victory would ultimately play in shaping the most exciting period of their modern history.