Four years ago today, Sheffield United's employees noticed a big change had taken place
Four years ago today, people arriving for work at Bramall Lane noticed a change in the decor.
The motivational signs, which used to hang on the walls of the corridors snaking through the bowels of the stadium, had gone. Rather than being greeted with pictures of Native American warriors staring wistfully across canyons and quotes imploring them to be the best they possibly could be, Sheffield United’s administration staff found themselves staring at bare plaster. It was Chris Wilder’s handywork.
Less than 12 hours earlier, after agreeing to take charge of the club he had supported since childhood and represented 127 times as a player, Wilder’s first act after scribbling his name across the bottom of a contract was to find a screwdriver. Then, when one had been sourced from an electrician’s tool box, he set about removing the posters which had become synonymous with the reign of his predecessor Nigel Adkins.
“Chris took them all down straight away, absolutely no messing, the frames got wrenched out and everything went in the bin,” one United employee, which witnessed the destruction, said. “He clearly didn’t want them there so that was that. There was no discussion about it and, if I’m honest, I couldn’t stop laughing.”
Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of Wilder’s appointment as United manager; a decision which proved to be the catalyst for the most successful period in their recent history. The story of how he celebrated his arrival has become the stuff of legend, recounted by journalists, club employees and players alike every May 16th since. But what isn’t discussed is the message Wilder wanted to send when, although the pop psychology and artwork definitely got his back up, he went rampaging through the ground armed with a Phillips and a carrier bag to dump the offending items in.
United were in a very different place to the one they find themselves in now when Wilder came bursting back through the doors. A season which had promised so much - Adkins, it must be remembered, had also been a popular appointment - ended with a team which had been tipped for promotion meandering to a mid-table finish in League One instead.
But even more troubling than the prospect of another 12 months in the third tier was the stench of apathy which hung over this once proud club. United had not suffered a heroic failure under Adkins or suffered at the hands of a refereeing controversy. They had just sleep-walked through an entire campaign and Wilder, whose family and friends had witnessed the demise first hand, knew something had to change.
Fresh from leading Northampton Town to promotion despite a crippling financial crisis at Sixfields, removing Adkins’ beloved posters was the first session of the shock therapy course Wilder had prescribed to shake United out of their slumber. Sweeping changes, rather than slow, incremental adjustments, would be the order of the day. The second came when he tore up the squad he had inherited and brought in a wave of new players, a sizeable number of whom still remain on the books after securing promotion at the first attempt and then, last term, climbing into the Premier League.
“I’m a big believer that you shouldn’t be told to work hard,” Wilder told reporters a couple of years ago. “It should be a prerequisite. You should have that in you anyway.
“You need to surround yourself with people who have that mentality. Because, as I once got told when I was first starting out, if you win your tackles, headers and races, then you’ll win more games than you lose. It’s not about ‘playing between the lines or any of that nonsense. What does it mean?
“Yes, you’ve got to have talent. That’s pretty obvious. But talent is worth nothing unless you’re prepared to put a shift in.”
Despite making a slow start - which on reflection was probably inevitable given the sweeping personnel changes - Wilder’s message clearly resonated with a squad which amassed 100 points en route to the League One title. United have collected 201 more since; averaging 1.81 points per game under the 52-year-old’s stewardship and reaching seventh in the Premier League before the fixture schedule was suspended because of coronavirus.
Although his approach is more sophisticated than some pundits appreciate - United’s take on the 3-5-2 system has attracted admiration from Pep Guardiola, Marcelo Bielsa and Jurgen Klopp alike - Wilder’s greatest strength is understanding the personality of the club he now manages. A polite, respectful guy despite his failings in South Yorkshire, Adkins’ inability to realise that his uber-upbeat approach grated with supporters was arguably his biggest weakness.
Strangely, despite winning only 18 of his 46 league matches at the helm, Adkins didn’t see his sacking coming either. Indeed, after being summoned to the meeting where his contract was terminated, the former Southampton and Hull City chief was said to have been visibly shocked when its purpose became apparent.
Only a couple of weeks earlier, after losing the final match of a miserable campaign, he had told the media: “We’ve got a little period of time to go and reflect to make sure we give ourselves an opportunity to come back better and stronger.”
By hiring Wilder - and hijacking his proposed switch to Charlton Athletic - United’s hierarchy made sure they did.