Alan Biggs Column: Chris Wilder steadied the ship at Sheffield United before and he'll do it again
It's the morning of August 17th last summer. Sheffield United have just crashed 3-0 at home to Southend. Their record shows one point in four games.
It will shortly be one in five after a defeat at Millwall.
Supporters are stunned, not knowing who to blame. At the training ground next day coaches and backroom staff are in quiet, reflective mood.
Then in walks the manager in whom so much faith has been invested, by both club and fans.
“Come on, why isn’t that telly on? Get that telly on, nowt’s going to change round here,” booms Chris Wilder, bouncy and buoyant as ever. A small moment but a very big one in the eyes of those present.
Paul Mitchell, head of the club’s scouting operation, recalls: “That’s when I said to myself: ‘This guy’s good.’ He never flinched, never panicked. He didn’t get carried away then – and he hasn’t been getting carried away lately either.”
Fast forward to late-January and Wilder’s facing another big challenge. One that threatens to topple United from the very TOP of League One. Which is not to make light of it, only to put it into proper context.
Let’s face it, the Blades were poor on Tuesday, devoid of craft and guile, deservedly beaten by a good side in Fleetwood and left to reflect on one point out of nine just as they were in prime position to nail down the leadership.
A rare reservation from me is that perhaps Wilder left himself with nowhere to go after the surprisingly scathing level of his condemnation of the team following the 2-2 home draw with Gillingham three days earlier.
Maybe a little of that was manufactured to gain a response. It was not forthcoming. On this occasion.
Tuesday’s approach play was purposeful but the final ball, allied to dreadful mistakes at the back, was wretched. Attacking recruits James Hanson and Jay O’Shea will have opportunities sooner rather than later.
However, times are very different five months on from that potentially catastrophic beginning to the season. For the highly experienced Mitchell, Wilder’s resourceful response to his rocky start is the link between the two. A reason why the latest challenge will be overcome. And an example of why too many managers are hastily sacked. Remarkably, Wilder never has been across 15 years.
“People inside clubs see certain things,” says former Chesterfield chief scout and ex non-league boss Mitchell. “Chris has had down times but people could see he was going the right way. For me, when he was at his very best was when we didn’t start this season well. He never stopped doing what he thought was right.”
It’s also why Mitchell – a key early signing by the Blades boss – rates Wilder the best he’s seen first hand. “I worked for John Sheridan, Tommy Wright, Paul Cook, Dean Saunders and Danny Wilson. At Chesterfield we won promotion twice and went to Wembley twice. They were all very good. But I have to says Chris is way ahead of those other blokes I worked for. Way ahead.
“His planning is second to none. And he doesn’t dither. Once he’s decided on something, that’s it.”
So don’t rule out a deviation from the 3-5-2 that put United back on track. Strikes me that Mark Duffy is the club’s best crosser of the ball. With O’Shea competing for Duffy’s role in “the hole” and 6’ 4” Hanson on board, I wonder if we’ll see a shift back wide for one of Wilder’s most creative talents? Most importantly, there are countless options.