Manager in the media: The criminally-ignored Chris Wilder

Date published: Friday 22nd March 2019 2:08

This week Johnny’s off to South Yorkshire to look at a man who never knowingly pronounces an aitch. That’ll be Chris Wilder, then.

Who are ya?
Christopher John Wilder is 51 and from Stocksbridge, a suburb of Sheffield. Was a defender for mostly lower league Yorkshire clubs from Sheffield United to Halifax. When he took up management with Alfreton Town he was immediately incredibly successful. In six months he won the Northern Counties (East) League Premier Division, the League Cup, the President’s Cup and the Derbyshire Senior Cup. That’s some haul.

From there he spent six years at Halifax Town until it was wound up. Went to manage Oxford and got them out of the Conference via the play-offs. Spent six years there before going to Northampton. Took them to the League 2 title racking up 99 points, then beat that back taking Sheffield United up to the Championship with 100. Currently, sitting second in with a good chance of going up automatically. Just beat Leeds United at Elland Road. No wonder he’s a hero to Blades fans

Throughout his career so far he’s fought on through lots of difficult financial situations at clubs. Even now at the Blades he’s punching well above the club’s financial weight and proving, once again, the Championship is far, far less predictable and far, far more about good management than spending big money. That’s why so many love it.

Clearly a brilliant man-manager and capable of inspiring loyalty and belief even managing to keep players on board at Northampton Town when the club was in disarray off the pitch and no-one was being paid, which led to him delivering this remarkable, passionate speech.

Chris seems cut from Yorkshire Millstone Grit and has a real timeless quality about him. Easy to imagine him shouting “my lad’s not goin’ dahn pit” as a brass band plays mournfully in the background and the cold, grey, rain falls.

Has a distinctive square-shaped head and looks built like a rugby league prop forward. Easy to imagine him as your local butcher in the war. Just looks like he could joint a pig, then slip you some sausages and a couple of kidneys on the sly.

Pitchside he favours the sportswear which he effortlessly fills. When wearing a shirt, tie and suit it looks like he can’t wait to get the bloody thing off. Certainly one to pull at his collar uncomfortably, unfastening the top button and tugging at the tie, moaning all the while and getting a fierce telling off from the wife for doing so. “I can’t take you anywhere, can I?”

 

Cunning linguist?
Has a quintessential South Yorkshire accent which combines being lugubrious with being blunt and straightforward. No aitch is left radically undropped. To hear him say happy is to hear no ‘h’ and an awful lot of ‘a’. ‘Hoping’ becomes ‘ohpin.’

Rarely says a ‘t’ in any words, either, thus ‘result’ is ‘rezull’ and ‘about’ is ‘abowe.’ Has a distinct habit of turning his mouth down in disdain, mid-sentence at his own words when talking about the opposition. “They were just” – turns down mouth – “lumpin’ it anywhere.”

Rarely smiles. In fact, I could hardly find any interview or photo were he didn’t look somewhere between angry and stern. His smile, whenever it is deployed, is actually little different from his grimace, almost as if it hurts him to do it. But then in many ways, as all of us who have extended Yorkshire family know, that’s not an unusual way of going on for anyone from God’s Country. Indeed, my granny from Hull who lived many years in Castleford used to scowl whenever she saw someone laughing and witheringly say “what’ve they got to laugh abaht?” like it was a character weakness. So Chris is just following in a long tradition in that regard.

If you were to listen to him being interviewed and had to guess what era he was from, you’d be hard pushed to say. He could just as easily be from the 1960s as from 2019. And that’s great.

 

Media hit or miss?
A classic interview for local radio. Comes on as straightforward and down to earth but all the while knows exactly what he’s doing. And while there is no doubt this is all from the heart, whoever made the video most surely know how touching it is. It is designed to pull on the heartstrings and in Chris they’ve got no better man to express affection for your club in the right way. I mean, the way he talks in this is prose poetry and stirring to the soul.

When interviewed he has the disconcerting habit of simply staring unblinking at his interviewer with his hard dark eyes, his face in repose; expressionless. I’m sure that can be a little intimidating to at least the less experienced microphone holder and in the interviews I’ve watched I get the feeling that they all want to say something he will agree with, want to get on his good side, perhaps. And that’s very good politics for any manager, especially with the local media who it is always important to keep on your side.

If promoted, on a more national stage, some will without doubt depict him as unsophisticated but that would be patronising and illustrate just how far we’ve got to go to escape class prejudice. We live in an era where people are taking elocution lessons in record numbers to try and iron out the more idiosyncratic aspects of their local accents to appear more employable to the accentless who, it would seem, are bigoted against anyone identifiably from anywhere. So it would be easy to think a man of such blunt Yorkshireness has been somewhat held back from the big time by virtue of looking and talking like a miner in a Ken Loach movie, despite proving himself to be very, indeed extraordinarily capable.

 

Proper Football Man Rating: Chardonnay vinegar.
The boys believe that it is pretty much racist and probably sexist too, if they knew what that meant (what’s wrong with being sexy?), to require ‘good young English managers’ (often into their early 60s) to get into the Premier League via promotion, rather than being parachuted into a position by virtue only of their nationality. The fact that Chris has, as far as I can tell, never moaned once about such a thing, fills them with despair. Here’s a fella who really should be a classic Proper Football Man, and indeed, they will fearlessly refer to him as just that, having kicked around the lower divisions as a player and a manager, but to be a proper PFM you really need to have chip on your shoulder the size of your garishly decorated villa in Spain, and Chris really hasn’t shown the boys the required degree of paranoia to sign him into their club.

Of course the PFM has never usually done much of a stint in the lower leagues, preferring to wait until some club with more money than sense can, in their favourite parlance, ‘match my ambitions’, ambitions which usually have a lot of noughts on the end of the wage slip (do wage slips exists any more?) especially after they’re sacked for their sides playing football so horrible to witness it makes people angry they have paid actual money to do so.

That being said, he’s got the build of man who could dish out a right hander to any one one of them after a few drinks in a casino and they respect that almost more than anything else.

But that film he’s in for season tickets has made them worry he’s a bit of a star and that he sounds like he’s off of one of them films about a brass band, Jeff. He’s so classy he probably has chardonnay vinegar on his chips. That’s just a waste of good wine, Richard.

 

What the people say
Everyone who has had Chris as their manager seems to have a lot of positive things to say about him. Obviously, Sheff Utd fans are delighted to have won League One and are now pushing for promotion to the league that is somehow two higher than One. But aside from the glow of success, there is genuine appreciation for his work and for how he’s gone about turning a club that was languishing mid-table in the third tier to be on the verge of the going to the top flight. His is quite a story and most people who are not hypnotised by the Premier League soap opera and its ongoing existential crisis, are rooting for him.

His transfer dealings are incredible – Cranie, Stevens, Fleck, Duffy and McGoldrick all key squad members and all for free. When there has been an odd failure in this regard he’s moved them on quickly. Has an innate understanding of what makes the club tick.

He’s beautiful.

We don’t really want to talk about how good Wilder is in case he gets snapped up for a big job. His transformation job on a team that finished 11th in League One 3 years ago is incredible. Football that is stylish with the ability to take a more practical approach if necessary…

Often looks like a composite of every Angry People in Local Papers post ever.

Best manager @AlfretonTownFC has seen.

Suffice to say absolutely no-one at #ntfc is surprised at his success at the Blades and even though he left them for his boyhood club, there is no ill will and people will be thrilled for him if he makes the Premier League.

He would admit himself that it’s not just him. Working with Alan Knill has transformed his career. Turned him from a competent lower league manager to someone exceptional. Knill is the tactics guy and the good cop to CW’s bad cop. It works brilliantly.

He blends the old school with the new. Demands tackles, headers, hard work and team spirit but is tactically innovative and allows his players freedom to express. Don’t underestimate Knill and his wider backroom team because they play a massive part and Wilders trust in those alongside the senior pros being left to ‘police’ the dressing room is huge. There’s a lot made about him being a fan and his passion is there to see but he can be calculated and calm and doesn’t let his heart drive his head and his team is a mirror image of him in many ways.

One of my former managers was waiting for his bus into work over Christmas and suddenly this car pulls over and beeps the horn. Low and behold it was Mr W (who he knows from the grassroots game) offering him a lift. Can’t really imagine Sarri doing that!

Highly thought of by people who remember him in non-league by all accounts, as he still remembers well his time in non-league. He presented the NPL Awards last season and was well-received.

Hope Sheffield Utd go up because generally think Wilder could be best British manager in the game at the moment.

A criminally ignored, unqualified success story. No airs or graces, just a thoroughly driven manager whose made a thoroughly driven team having saved another club from oblivion before that. When the likes of Moyes, Allardyce etc are all still getting top level jobs.

Gave us our club back. There’s a buzz and energy about the place and we’re all totally United. The football is a joy to watch and every player gives their all. Would run through a brick wall for him. Never give up attitude and exciting overlapping wing backs.

Quite simply the greatest manager I’ve ever seen at United. His signings are the ability to turn water to wine – although he’s not afraid to say he gets things wrong and they are offloaded quickly. He is passionate but doesn’t let this blind him. He has taken a club and it’s fans that finished 11th in league one and the whole mentality of losing and turned it on its head. It’s hard when people ask about him as I don’t think any words will ever do justice to what he’s done and is doing.

The fact that Wilder isn’t seemingly considered for other roles or at a higher level is to our benefit. Unfashionable Yorkshireman? Hard to say, but he’s tactically astute, innovative, his teams play exciting & technically excellent football. His man management is second to none. The turnover of players in less than three years is very high, but once they are in, assessed, a decision is made and if it isn’t right for club/player they are moved on with seemingly no ill feeling toward club or manager. This can’t be underestimated.

He plays the media well, local and national managing to get his message across to players, fans and rivals without appearing anything other than authentic. An absolute hero who has turned the club around.

From the outside he is sometimes portrayed as all about the ‘pashun’, commitment and running around more. And he plays up to that at times. But he is tactically very astute, genuinely innovative and a brilliant man manager, improving almost every player

He has incrementally improved the team at every transfer window and even when his signings haven’t quite paid off, e.g. Lee Evans and Ryan Leonard, he’s shipped them out quickly and even made a profit on them. He changed a club and fans mindset from losing to winning.

He took over a rudderless club spiralling into oblivion and grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and shook it so hard the rivets popped out of the stands. He is driven, has an attitude, doesn’t suffer fools and for good and sometimes bad is a proper Sheffielder.

He’s a very clever, acute, tactile, and honest manager. He’s gone back to basics with old school football, then brought in a style of football that’s so exciting to watch. He brought our club back to life after been rock bottom and all the life had been sucked out of it.

After years of Nigel Clough’s defensive interviews randomly singling out players, and Nigel Adkins’ psychobabble, Wilder’s ‘spade a spade’ approach was incredibly refreshing for us blades. He talks like a fan, but this covers how innovative and tactically astute he actually is.

To use a phrase CW is fond of. He’s humble. He’s respectful and a winner. Players respond because he is humble and achieve because of his respect for them.

 

How long has he got?
Already a South Yorkshire hero, even if they don’t get promotion this year, everyone is amazed at the job he’s doing, so will certainly get to have a couple more goes at getting them up. Has certainly paid his dues in the lower leagues and only the churlish would deny him a lick of the big time cream. While one is always reluctant to give any ground to the PFM belief that English managers are pariahs in their own land, far worse managers with far less experience have got bigger jobs than Chris.

Of course doing well at clubs with little budget when making the players significantly better individually and collectively is now often thought to be a different gig altogether from handling players on £150K per week and spending a £100million transfer budget. Perhaps. But if so that is only a sign of how far from sane the culture of top-flight fantasy football has become and why the Championship is the real Premier League .

There can’t be anyone who deserves his success more as it seems crafted out of genuine talent at management. So many rely on money to buy themselves success and they earn little respect for doing so from anyone but the shallow. That’s not the Wilder way. Being any good, making players better and coming up with a way to draw the most out of the resources you’ve got is so old school, it is positively modern and progressive. An unsung hero nationally, long may his success continue.

 

John Nicholson

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