It was a damp October night in 2001 when the door to Sheffield FC’s dimly lit Portakabin boardroom swung open. The flow of discussion amongst committee members was disrupted as a brazenly confident, young man entered the room, unannounced, brandishing a player transfer form.
He was there to sign Mick Godber, Sheffield FC’s star striker at the time.
Officials knew that Godber’s departure would inflict serious damage to their team’s prospects but the player’s desire to leave for the opportunity to play at a higher level left them, effectively, powerless to resist.
Sensing the club secretary’s reticence to sign the release form and the glares of futile defiance from others around the table, Alfreton Town’s new manager, Chris Wilder, delivered the admonishment: “You football people - you’re all the same, aren’t yer?”
With that he cheerily bounded away, signed papers in hand.
Wilder’s forensic knowledge of local football, gleaned initially from managing a Sunday League team in his twenties, helped him reshape his new team quickly. In just 27 weeks as Alfreton manager he claimed four trophies, including the Northern Counties (East) League title.
His steady ascendancy through non-league towards the upper echelons of the English game, via Halifax Town, Oxford United and Northampton Town, reveal a man who has been prepared to do the ‘hard yards’ in learning his trade.
At Halifax he proved he could manage effectively through adversity, keeping his team competitive in the Conference even while training facilities were being lost and wages left unpaid.
He returned Oxford to the Football League and stabilised them before taking over at Northampton and running away with League Two in only his second full season in charge – against the backdrop of a financial crisis which threatened to engulf the club.
By then Wilder’s managerial stock had risen significantly and, with Charlton ready to pounce, Sheffield United owner, Kevin McCabe, (to his absolute credit, having previously ignored Dave Bassett’s urgings to appoint him) stepped in decisively to bring Wilder home.
Subsequent events are really the stuff of childhood dreams and surely beyond the wildest expectations of Blades supporters.
After five years of stagnation in ‘The Pub League’, culminating in the utterly perplexing reign of Nigel Adkins, Wilder breathed life and passion back into his Blades, winning the League One title at a canter and scoring a century of points in the process.
Consolidation, in the form of a mid-table finish, was deemed, by most, as an entirely acceptable target, for United’s first season back in The Championship. Few saw their team shaping as potential promotion contenders.
Wilder’s turnaround has been achieved through a combination of strategy and emotion.
His strategy is, evidently, built on three key elements: team ethic, player recruitment and Organisation.
Wilder believes in the power of a strong dressing room - “it’s all about the group” a favourite mantra - united in vision and purpose. Where every single player is prepared to give his all on behalf of his team. A team ethic built on social camaraderie as well as physical endeavour. And there are no half measures. In Wilder’s eyes, “you’re either in or you’re out.” The level of commitment expected is total, whether on the training field or on a visit to Wetherspoons.
Anyone who follows United can observe how this approach impacts performances. As Mark Duffy told The Star recently: “There are teams in the league with bigger names and bigger wages. But we’ve got a spirit that money can’t buy. Everyone here has got each others backs. We all fight for each other and help each other out.”
Wilder applauds the Bournemouth model and talks about signing “young, hungry, players,” augmented with a few others with experience. Armed with a relatively modest budget, his success rate, in player recruitment, has been outstanding - Chris Hussey being, arguably, the only one to fall short from 20-plus signings, to date (with some of the newer ones still having a point to prove).
Ably supported by chief scout Paul Mitchell, Wilder has a nose for finding value in the transfer market and an acute ability for getting players to play to their optimum. He has developed clarity on the kind of player he wants to sign and has talked about 15 criterion used to filter potential signings.
Although he hasn’t revealed the detail of his checklist, it’s self-evident that character traits will feature as prominently as technique.
Wilder’s decisions on who to ship out have been just as critical, with Matt Done, Stefan Scougall and John Brayford – all previously popular with supporters – being shown the exit door. By contrast, the reprieved Kieron Freeman and Paul Coutts, serial underperformers prior to Wilder’s arrival, have been rejuvenated under his tutelage.
But many would argue that Wilder’s best recruit was his trusted assistant Alan Knill, who takes prime responsibility for coaching. Signing and keeping good technical players with the right attitude is clearly important but unless the team is fit and organised, it will still underperform. Knill has helped ensure that is rarely the case.
Wilder demands that his team play aggressive, attacking football, ‘on the front foot’. This requires his players to press the opposition high up the pitch, relentlessly closing down and harassing until possession is regained. Then attacking with real intent and purpose - avoiding the aimless possession tactics pursued by some of his predecessors. Wilder sets the vision; Knill helps put the system in place and, crucially, the players are brought on board to deliver it.
Much is made of the currently-preferred 3-5-2 formation, but Wilder has successfully deployed others and will no doubt do so again, depending on the players at his disposal and the task at hand. What really matters is having a group of players operating, in unison, to an agreed plan. As Leon Clarke noted recently: “The manager is very clear in his instructions, and everybody knows what is expected of them.”
Wilder has overseen a revival built on a redoubtable team ethic, intelligent recruitment and strong organisation. He has applied the wisdom accrued from 15 years managing teams with meagre resources in the lower leagues. But anyone who doubts that United’s recent revival is welded to Wilder’s deeply-felt relationship with his club and its supporters understands the essence of neither.
He gets the club and its fan base like no other manager in living memory, including Bassett and Warnock. He gets them because he’s one of them. When Wilder thumps ‘the badge’ it is not the superficial act of a player trying to curry favour with ‘the club faithful’ before scurrying off to the highest bidder. It is a demonstration of allegiance and passion from an authentic manager who really means it.
He felt the gut wrenching agony and humiliation of the Boxing Day Massacre, the numbing sorrow that followed Don Givens’ penalty kick and the euphoric revival of the Bassett years. He experienced the soul-sapping hollowness, which preceded the end of the McDonald era, before the resurrection under Warnock and, then, the devastating sense of injustice over ‘Tevez.’
Whether by accident or design, Wilder has created an axis of steel, which now runs through The Blades between owner, manager, captain and supporters. The sense of unity generated from having the key positions in the football club filled with people who have spent a lifetime supporting their team, through all its highs and lows, is palpable and, at least in Blades terms, unique.
Getting Wilder has transformed The Blades from being a club that had lost its way to one that has every right to start dreaming big again. Keeping him is surely his club’s biggest priority.