Chris Wilder is a coaching enigma already in his top job

Matt Stead

Will Chris Wilder get to manage one of the elite? Does it matter? Would he care? The man is made for and by Sheffield United.


Who’s this then?
Christopher John Wilder is a 52-year-old Yorkshireman from the steel town of Stocksbridge, near Sheffield. After four years in Southampton’s youth academy he began his senior career aged just 17 at his home club of Sheffield United in 1986. He played as a right-back.

He was on the Blades’ books for six years in total, but went out on loan for three of them to Walsall, Charlton and Orient. In 1992 he left for nearby Rotherham and would spend four years there, playing 158 games for the Millers and scoring a solid 12 goals.

From there it was two years at Notts County and two at Bradford City before a return to Bramall Lane for 14 games, following loan spells at Lincoln and Brighton. He finished his career with 58 games at Halifax Town, retiring in 2001 having played 484 games and scoring 15 times.

His playing career was the very definition of the journeyman: one of football’s committed toilers who sustain the game up and down the pyramid.

He went into management almost immediately, taking over at Alfreton Town and winning four trophies in his first and only season in charge. He went back to his last club Halifax Town to take over in the dugout in 2002. He stayed for six years, simply maintaining their Conference status but getting to a play-off final in 2006. However, for the duration, the club was on its uppers and in 2008 went into liquidation, at which point Chris went to fellow non-leaguers Oxford United.

In his first full season he got them promoted back to the Football League via the play-offs. He kept them in League Two and after six years in charge, went to Northampton Town, also in the fourth tier, taking with him Alan Knill, who he’d worked as assistant to at Bury for a few months. Knill would be with him on the journey from this point and is widely credited as a crucial part of their success.

The Cobblers were in the relegation positions when he took over and he kept them up. He consolidated the following season with a mid-table finish and promptly won the title the next year with 99 points, this despite a lot of financial problems at the club which meant players and staff not being paid for two months. Even so, he kept the club together and led them to promotion.

At this point, Sheffield United of League One saw the great job he’d done and his boyhood club signed him up. A slow start followed, taking just a single point out of the first 12, but then they accelerated up the league and won it with 100 points. That took his two-season tally to 199 points, one more than Pep Guardiola achieved in his title-winning campaigns on a fraction of the budget, in far more competitive leagues.

He had basically repeated at Sheffield United what he’d done at Northampton. His first season in the Championship was consolidated at tenth and the next year they got promoted, finishing second. He took the Blades to the top flight in three seasons with two promotions. A truly remarkable achievement made with no little tactical nous and man management.

His first season in the Premier League was a huge success, being in the top six for much of the season, ending ninth. If he was to follow his previous form, this should lead to a push for the title this year! Sadly, as we know, the Premier League model won’t allow this to happen and indeed has been set up almost specifically to prevent it being anything more than an occasional blip.

He now faces the problem others who have outperformed the form book have faced: What next? A couple of seasons with mid-table finishes would be a big achievement but it is to the cups that they should be turning to offer more thrills, because soon enough the excitement of being mid-table will wear off and at that point it all start to feel a bit pointless unless the club can really push for trophies.

There was a strong argument for him to win the Manager of the Year award, given what he had achieved and how he had achieved it. Even now, some are surprised that he’s done so much. To say he’s been underestimated would be in itself an underestimation.


Why the love?
If you’ve got any Yorkshiremen in your family, then the chances are at least one of them will be Wilderesque. That is, a man keen on telling you what’s what, confident in the fact he’s right, prone to being passive-aggressive, considers smiling to be a premium product and not to be indulged in too frequently, and will jab a short but wide forefinger at you to make a literal and figurative point. That being said, a few drinks will release extreme bonhomie and good cheer. In short, he is quintessential Yorkshire and proud of it.

We live at a time when the elite of the game seem like they come from a different species of animal, living lives of impossible luxury and privilege, earning vast sums of money for doing not much, purely out of an accident of sporting economic history. It has alienated much of the football fanbase from them. We don’t dislike them, nor even disrespect them, but we cannot relate to them. On top of that is a gnawing feeling that somehow this is wrong, that footballers and their managers have become co-opted into a world that is so distant from the lives of those who sustain the game lead; that the People’s Game, at the highest level, has never felt less like it either belongs to or needs the people.

Chris Wilder stands against all of that. That’s why he is so loved and respected. He does not seem like a distant figure. He does not seem separated from us by the walls of wealth and privilege. He is of, by and for the people. This despite the fact that Sheffield United are now wholly owned by Prince Abdullah bin Mosa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Sa’ud of the Royal House of Saud, which has not attracted the opprobrium it would have elsewhere. Wilder is an effective bulwark against any distaste for the ownership. He is Sheffield United made flesh.

It is tempting to feel that it is precisely this quality that will disqualify him from ever being given a job at an elite club. He probably wouldn’t take it anyway – managing Sheffield United is probably his most elite of elite jobs and rightly so – but there isn’t a club in the Premier League that would not be better with Chris Wilder in charge of it. Not one. His success last season at Sheffield United makes a mockery of a decision such as Daniel Levy’s to bring in Jose Mourinho at huge cost, one that contradicts his supposed reputation as a shrewd operator who is tight with the purse strings. After all, the Blades beat his Spurs 3-1. If Wilder was in charge of Spurs they would be A Team. They would work as a unit and not an assemblage.

That Chelsea might hand the reins to Frank Lampard because of his club legend is all well and good, but Wilder would have been a far, far superior choice. He would never have been entertained.

No-one wants to stray too far down the ridiculous road marked ‘Proper Football Man’ and claim that an Englishman is being discriminated against in his own land, because the numbers simply don’t back that assertion up. But it is equally pointless to pretend that image and attitude doesn’t matter at all. Now more than ever, it matters massively. And I’m not sure that executives of wealthy top football clubs know what someone with Chris’s background and experience is all about. I suspect he looks like an alien creature to them. In a world sculpted out of grotesque money and bulbous ego, anyone down to earth must appear to be speaking a different language.

However, they should note that he’s had to work with a Saudi owner and the increasing influence of Belgian Jan van Winckel. Along with his experience of keeping a club together in financially difficult times while maintaining success at Northampton, he has a compelling story superior to many more favoured coaches.

Wilder is part of the clever working class which has always been patronised. It is assumed he might lack sophistication, learning and intelligence. It is assumed that his talents are in the base skills of life and thus he couldn’t possibly be able to sit at the top table with the wealthy and privileged. Even those who are very much pro-Wilder are often too keen to paint him as a meat and potatoes guy as a kind of default when, if we stop and consider his CV more closely, this is far from the case. He even plays up to this himself with his “old school is the new school” comments.

Look at how his now famous overlapping centre-backs tactic was discussed. There was surprise, to say the least, that the Blades were playing this way. That surprise was grounded in a notion that Wilder was a bluff, no-nonsense, 4-4-2 Yorkshireman and thus wouldn’t do anything innovative. I remember pundits suggesting they’d be too one dimensional to survive, that they’d be hoofing, long-ball merchants or some such rubbish. Those who had watched the team play knew that wasn’t true, but those that hadn’t just assumed he would be a Yorkshire Allardyce. There’s your patronising, right there.

The man management, business and tactical skills he’s had to use to get his club to where it is today are way more than other highly-regarded coaches have had to go through. It has hardened him. He’s been tested under fire and come out victorious in a way which many others who have been protected from the cold winds of penury by massive wealth never have – or if they have, have long since lost touch with.

There were times at Northampton when wages couldn’t be paid. And yet his list of honours proves how successfully he can navigate his way through such muddy waters. Anyone who can win a league when people don’t get paid in November and December has the power to unify and motivate like few others.

The fact he used to get the bus to Bramall Lane when he first took over only endeared him more to the fans. These things matter. Football is a working-class sport; no-one minds people getting on in life but keeping connected to the community that forged you and your character and sustains your job, it’s essential to keep those people in your corner.


What the people love
While some lovely comments came in, the volume wasn’t high. This may be because the Blades don’t have the world’s biggest fanbase but also because Wilder is a quiet revolutionary who simply doesn’t fit the mould of a successful top-flight manager and even now his qualities are not widely known. Maybe some simply don’t understand him and his ways, but he is almost certainly as good as or better than the manager their club has.

We start with a 4_4_haiku:

‘Some players/managers I don’t believe in the “I’m just a normal guy” type schtick but with Wilder I completely do. His social distancing thoughts yesterday summed up how everyone feels and he said good stuff about Vardy and player efforts recently. He’d be a great bloke to play for.’

‘1. Been a manager since 2001, never been fired. In 19 years. Honestly.
2. THAT interview after Cobblers v Notts County.
3. The 2016 title winning season for Northampton.
As a Northampton fan, him and Knill are legends.’

‘Knill is an exceptional tactician, scout and one on one coach but too nice a bloke to be the top guy. Wilder basically tells the players to do what Knill says or they are out. Immediately. No second chance. Wilder is good on his own and the players think he is extremely fair and they know exactly where they stand. But he has an exceptional assistant and is bright and humble enough to acknowledge this.’

‘He’s got a foot in both camps when it comes to PFM and modern managers, which makes everyone like him.’

‘1/ He’s a pleasant contradiction of what you expect from a high level English coach these days. The image has rather been tainted by the likes of Pardew, Warnock, Pulis, Allardyce (who all have had merits in specific circumstances) etc. 2/ While Wilder has a somewhat gruff, straight talking image, he brings with him a level of tactical sophistication we’ve come to associate with elite European coaches. Clearly well regarded by his squad, so add excellent man management to his list of talents.’

‘After Leeds played Sheff Utd in 2018, Marcelo Bielsa said “He plays with inverted centre-backs. I tried that and failed.”‘

‘As a Sheffield United fan, there is genuinely no one else I would rather has as manager. Being a fan and former player counts for something, but not everything. However, he combines that with tactical ingenuity that makes everyone from Guardiola to Klopp take notice. He’s amazing.’


Three great moments
Simply, this is what he’s all about:

“I’ve not got a clue what is going off.” Chris speaks for us all:

“No excuse…technically very poor.” When his team plays badly he doesn’t hide from it or use ‘deflection’ tactics that no-one is fooled by.


What now?
The Proper Football Man collective, though now a weakened force in the world, as symbolised by Tim Sherwood’s promotion to the Soccer Saturday panel, will always say that “no-one talks about Chris Wilder when the big jobs come up”. You know they will, they keep saying it about Sean Dyche and in doing so, are seemingly totally unaware that they are intrinsically contradicting themselves by always talking about him for a top job. But that’s the PFM for you; not even listening to what he himself is saying.

And while it is almost certain that Chris will not be considered as the next manager for Manchester City when Guardiola leaves next year – even though he’d be great – I’m not sure it really matters. We all have our personal goals and they do not have to be the same as those said to be worthy of achievement. We all walk our own road in life and I suspect Chris’s top job is being boss of Sheffield United and the City job, for example, would look much less interesting and far less glamorous to him.

Given his success so far and his commitment to the club, it seems hard to believe that he won’t have a long career at the club. However, even though many cannot imagine ever taking against him, if results go awry the football world is littered with those who achieved so much but who were dumped at the first sign of trouble. He will not be immune from that.

At 52, even if he’s at Bramall Lane for ten more years, which isn’t likely but is possible, there will be a post-Sheffield United era at some point. He would make a wonderful pundit and a career in that side of the media is surely a strong possibility. We badly need people to call a spade a spade and have the balls to call bullshit when needed.

Wilder’s success is one of the few genuinely uplifting stories in the modern Premier League and I think we can only hope that he continues to stick it right up the bracket of all the Premier League snobs, elitists and gobshites.

John Nicholson