Sheffield United: '˜Chris Wilder and I aren't best mates' admits Blades No.2 Alan Knill as he talks 3-5-2, not enjoying management and nullifying Marco van BastenÂ

He's the Slough-born defender who neutered the great Marco van Basten on his only appearance for Wales; a man who hated managing but has established himself as one of English football's most innovative coaches.

Monday, 15th October 2018, 4:09 pm
Updated Monday, 15th October 2018, 4:13 pm
Knill pictured in his first game as Millers manager

On the face of it he may be a maze of contradictions but above all that, Alan Knill is just a thoroughly decent bloke and, together with manager Chris Wilder and the rest of his coaching staff, have got Sheffield United playing a brand of football that clubs in the Championship are struggling to cope with.

All on a budget lower than, as a conservative estimate, three quarters of the second tier.

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United went into this international break top of the table and, with 34 matches still to play, with many observers believing they are better equipped to stay there than last season, when one lazy prod of Marvin Sordell's boot broke both Paul Coutts' leg and United hearts.

After his injury, United were never quite the same and finished tenth. But, less than a year after lifting the League One title, that didn't quite tell the full story of how Wilder, Knill and Co. had approached the season. They say the league table doesn't lie, but there are shades of grey inbetween the black and white.

"We didn't think there was any risk in the Championship," Knill told The Star. "At all.

"It was a league where managers get sacked all the time, so most would rather not lose than try to win.

Knill pictured in his first game as Millers manager

"You see some of the names and think these players must be good, but some of them are bang average; just going through the motions, to pick up their money.

"Nothing fazes us, but it is still a really hard league. In League One, if we didn't turn up as a team but a few lads did individually, we still had a chance of winning because we had the best players.

"But often, the last thing we say to the players is, 'be us'. Be really good at being us, and the rest will take care of itself. I think that's a good way to go about it."

Knill's gangly frame stretches out almost impossibly far as he relaxes in his seat, and it's little surprise to hear he was a defender in his playing days; of some repute, it turns out. If only fleetingly.

Knill eventually found his true calling in coaching

In the late 1980s, as a centre-half at Swansea in the old fourth division, Knill got a standby call-up to the full Wales side for a game against the mighty Dutch side, who had been crowned European champions some months earlier and had the likes of Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit to call upon.

A few days after playing away at Southend, Knill found himself thrown in for his international debut and tasked with marking the mighty van Basten, while Portsmouth's Barry Horne took skipper Gullit.

"He had a stinker and I had a really good night," was Knill's take on the evening, which saw Terry Yorath's side stand firm until seven minutes from time when Gullit's follow-up header sealed a 1-0 victory for the European champions.

"On the Friday, I'd marked Roy McDonough - a big, awkward centre-forward," Knill smiles, "and on the following Wednesday I had van Basten, man to man. Everyone was saying I was brilliant, that I'd play for years.

Wilder and Knill were appointed in 2016

"The two first-choice centre-halves recovered from injury, and I never played again. It is what it is. At least it's a good story."

Over the course of almost two hours, Knill has many. We met to record his thoughts for my book, '˜He's one of our own, the story of Chris Wilder's Sheffield United revolution', and amongst the more fascinating aspects was the suggestion that Knill, despite some success and silverware, found managing an uncomfortable experience.

Since, he has discovered his true love of coaching and at both Northampton and United, alongside Wilder, the results have spoken for themselves.

"I see players going straight into management now..." he says, with a pause for thought. "Whatever you think management is, it's so much more. It rules everything, rules your life.

"Wherever you are, it's always football. My missus used to say to me that I was in 4-4-2 world again. She was speaking to me and I wasn't taking anything in, just thinking about football.

"You have to love managing to do it. You have to throw everything into it, or you'll come up short."

Alan Knill and Chris Wilder on the open-top bus after the League One title success

Knill tells the story of his spell at Torquay in 2013, when he took over as caretaker and was tasked with keeping the Gulls in the Football League. He succeeded, on the final day of the season, and was offered the job full-time.

"I said to the missus, 'what do you think?' It was the sunniest day ever... there were yachts in the sea, we had a house right on the beach.

"Lovely. I said to her 'maybe we can have work and a life here, rather than just get caught up in work?'

"So I took the job. Three months in, I didn't even notice the sea. I hated every minute of it. My missus would say to me 'come on, it could be Handsworth Road out there instead of the sea!'.

"I told her... I'd rather it was."

He was put out of his managerial misery in January 2014 and, less than a month later, the call came from Wilder to link up again, at Northampton.

Wilder had once been Knill's No.2, at Bury, but now the roles were reversed. No issues with that, he insists. The League Two title duly followed, despite destabilising financial problems that almost saw the club go out of business.

Then, the League One trophy at United, achieved with the help of a never-before-seen formation which saw centre-halves tasked with joining in with attacks rather than just preventing them.

"We have to enjoy what we're watching," offers Knill by way of explanation.

"We thought that it was the only way we could get an overload, so we walked on the training pitch and told the boys what we were trying to do.

"There were a few puzzled looks and Bash [Chris Basham] liked it, but it wasn't natural for Jack O'Connell.

"I told him it'd make him a better player and change how people look at defenders. And they took to it really well. No other team plays that way and although it's risk and reward, it's exciting to watch."

Even more fascinating, though, is Knill's relationship with Wilder - the modern day Taylor and Clough, and not just in terms of on-field success.

"We've found a formula that's working," he added. "What's the secret? Good staff. Seriously, though, we have a lot of respect for each other but Chris and I aren't best mates; we have a laugh if we go out, of course, but that's not often.

"We have different personalities, too - he has a big circle of friends and that would never be me.

"I prefer the quiet life, to be honest. So in that respect, we're chalk and cheese. Good cop, bad cop. I always seem to be good cop, though!"

- '˜He's one of our own', the story of Chris Wilder's Blades revolution, is available here.