Of all the signings Chris Wilder has made since becoming Sheffield United manager, Jake Wright’s arrival from Oxford probably highlights the principles which underpin his recruitment strategy best.
A no-nonsense, low maintenance player well-versed in the demands of lower league football with, most of all, a point to prove and burning hunger to succeed.
Wright, who is expected to partner Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell at the back against his former club tonight, has spent much of the past 12 seasons flying safely under the radar since turning professional 12 years ago. News of his arrival at Bramall Lane might have barely raised a ripple of excitement among United supporters when it was announced during a friendly against Stocksbridge Park Steels. But, eight months on, the centre-half is recognised as a key member of the squad which, after winning nine of its last 15 outings, finds itself on the cusp of promotion from League One.
“The business you do is always important,” Wilder said. “And that’s why we always do a great deal of homework on whoever we bring in. Not just about how they play and how they are performing, but also their personalities too. It goes without saying you need ability but, to be honest, what they are like as people is also key.”
Wilder was able to skip the research stage on Wright’s character after learning he was available for transfer, having previously worked with him at Halifax Town and the Kassam Stadium. But, together with assistant Alan Knill and head of recruitment Paul Mitchell, the 49-year-old has devised a formula which, in financial terms, has given United more bang for their buck in the transfer market. Wright, John Fleck and Mark Duffy are among those captured on free transfers while the likes of O’Connell, Samir Carruthers and James Hanson have all been acquired for significantly less than their market values.
“We are not paupers in this league,” Wilder said. “We should be looking to get out of this division but we have gone about it in a different way, there has been more control.
“We have put a structure into the club for the long term. Even now, budgets for next season, and the year after have been set, the structure of the club won’t change. That’s not to say we won’t be ambitious, however, and we won’t add to it in time.”
Wright was also a pivotal figure at Oxford before being declared surplus to requirements last summer. Michael Appleton, the Oxford manager, cited a “change of direction” as the reason behind his decision to cut the defender loose. Wilder, who led tonight’s opponents out of the Conference in 2010, has also persuaded his own club to shift position; abandoning their fascination with expensive, high-profile purchases and targeting players who are fit for purpose instead. Five points clear at the top of the table with 11 matches remaining, the results are clear to see.
“There isn’t a boom and bust culture here, or a gamble,” Wilder continued. “That’s not to say when a player like James Hanson becomes available, we can’t find the extra £150,000 or £175,000 available to get him, and give him the wages our senior players are on.”
Wright arrived at Oxford in December 2009 when Wilder, who had signed him during his spell in charge of Halifax, lured the 30-year-old away from Brighton and Hove Albion. A member of the squad which beat York City in the play-off final at Wembley, Wright helped establish Oxford as a League Two club before captaining them to promotion last term. Wilder resurrected their partnership after being appointed as Nigel Adkins’ replacement following his title success at Northampton Town.
“The way we run the club, the atmosphere here, every player that comes in is welcomed,” Wilder said. “We do our homework on new players, so we understand what they’re about. We always pride ourselves on being an open club to welcome players in to help them settle very quickly. They have all done that, on the pitch just as much as off it.”
“It involves a lot of phone calls, networking, digging, to get the right players in,” he added. “We are all different personalities, it’s not a robotic situation, and they all bring something to the group.”