Guest Blades Column: How Bramall Lane boss Chris Wilder is bucking the trend of so-called loyalty in football at Sheffield United

Blades boss Chris Wilder
Blades boss Chris Wilder
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Many a pub conversation on the subject will reach a similar conclusion on the modern day professional footballer.

They’re all in it for the money... there’s no such thing as loyalty in football anymore... they’re all mercenaries - just a few of the cliches, even despite numerous studies showing that pay is not the only, or even main factor impacting workplace loyalty.

That’s not to say pay isn’t an important factor - in a recent Star article, Chris Wilder noted that “in the past, you’ve seen lads leave... for £50. That probably says something about the environment that has been at this club” - and a scan of relevant research suggests that people who are satisfied in their work are more likely to remain loyal to their employer.

Others include career growth, relationships with colleagues, a clear understanding of responsibilities and job security.

With the exception of the last point - a tough nut to crack for the professional footballer, with an average career length of just eight years - the rest could have been lifted from the Wilder school of management.

One of his early priorities was ensuring his players were playing in their best position - aligned to their skill-set. Paul Coutts was moved from right wing, where Nigel Adkins and Nigel Clough had both deployed him, into central midfield and quickly established himself as one of the best playmakers outside of the Premier League.

Skipper Billy Sharp

Skipper Billy Sharp

Likewise, Chris Basham, a capable but not outstanding midfielder, was identified as a naturally gifted overlapping centre-back – a crucial component of United’s 3-5-2 set-up.

Wilder puts square pegs in square holes. In doing so he gets the best out of existing players and ensures, head of recruitment, Paul Mitchell has great clarity on the type of player he wants to sign. In Jim Collins’ ‘Good to Great,’ parlance, he gets the right people on, and off, the bus, then puts them in the right seats.

Once on board, Wilder and Knill ensure every player understands his responsibilities within the team. As Leon Clarke noted recently: “The manager is very clear in his instructions, and everybody knows what is expected of them.”

This approach, backed by the right IT, allows success to be broken into ‘byte-size’ pieces. Every player knows what individual success looks like and becomes accountable for his own contribution to the team’s performance.

Ryan Leonard was one of four signings in the January window

Ryan Leonard was one of four signings in the January window

Creating a positive work environment is something Wilder prioritises, perhaps, above all else. For him, a player’s personal qualities are of equal significance to technical ability.

His uncompromising, “you’re either in or you’re out,” approach to team bonding, bolstered by skipper Billy Sharp, has created a Bramall Lane dressing room culture unrivalled since the Bassett era.

As Mark Duffy said recently: “There are teams in the league with bigger names and bigger wages. But we’ve got a spirit that money can’t buy.”

By creating a winning culture, hiring the right people for the job in hand and ensuring they clearly understand what’s expected of them, Wilder builds advantage over competitors – including plenty with a massively bigger wage bill.

Top-scorer Leon Clarke

Top-scorer Leon Clarke

Unsurprisingly, Wilder’s approach has proved successful and he can lay claim to having improved the performance of every team he has managed. He may well be unique, in having served 17 years as a manager at league and non-league level without ever being sacked.

Team success brings opportunities for career growth, in the form of earnings and playing at a higher level, further reinforcing the job satisfaction for Wilder’s staff and players.

More money also brings potential problems, if relative pay levels are ignored. Research by the High Pay Centre showed high differentials in pay to be more likely to cause workplace unrest than earnings per se. Those organisations with the biggest differentials suffered higher levels of industrial disputes, sickness and staff turnover.

This impacts football clubs just as much as it does other industries with some players insisting on a contract clause guaranteeing them ‘top earner status’ - thus risking a ruinous cycle of wage and ego inflation decoupled from team performance.

Once again, Wilder’s judgement has proved astute in dealing with this, potentially, incendiary issue. Clarifying his position to The Star, before the start of the current season, he said: “We’ll be competitive and we’ll be ambitious.

“But I don’t want somebody on ‘x’ and somebody else on ten times that. Players understand the bar gets raised if you progress. Then, it’s up to the others to catch up.”

John Fleck has signed a new deal at United

John Fleck has signed a new deal at United

His approach seems to be working, with his mainstays and most saleable assets – Coutts, John Fleck, Clarke, Jack O’Connell and David Brooks – all signing recent contract extensions.

This despite acknowledged interest from wealthier clubs and Wilder’s suggestion that no Blades player earns more than the Championship average wage.

In 32-year-old Clarke’s case, as the Championship’s top scorer and with one last big pay day to negotiate, Wilder felt the need to publicly recognise his player’s decision to put football before money: “That boy could have earned double what he is getting here. In an age of professional footballers, where people talk about money and greedy footballers, well that ain’t a greedy footballer and neither are any of our players.”

On the back of a promotion and outstanding start to their Championship season, Clarke and his teammates could have cashed in. Wilder has made no secret of his refusal to fight too hard to keep hold of any player who wants to leave.

With the January window now closed, none of his stars have. This speaks volumes for Wilder, his players and the club’s owners.

Wilder also realises that loyalty is a two way street and he has to continually seek the right balance between giving his existing players a fair opportunity to shine, while steadily improving the quality of his squad.

Describing himself as “loyal but not sentimental” he continually raises the bar of expectation for his players, with the cold comfort of the subs’ bench only a poor performance or two away.

Those that deliver success through consistently high levels of performance are rewarded with regular starts, appearance money and improved contracts.

It is also notable that Sharp, Mark Duffy and Clarke were all rewarded with new contracts of two years plus, despite being the wrong side of 30. All fully deserved.

Wilder and his players have demonstrated that loyalty does exist in football.

If players have a clear understanding of their responsibilities and are given the support and encouragement to develop and improve their performance, it matters to them.

If they operate within an environment that fosters camaraderie, teamwork and commitment to a common cause, many will buy in. If success is achieved, and any ensuing financial rewards are distributed equitably, loyalty is likely to be reaffirmed.

While David Brooks remained at Bramall Lane during the recent transfer window

While David Brooks remained at Bramall Lane during the recent transfer window