James Shield: Rewriting the history books at Sheffield United will do the club no good at all in the long run
It started with Neil Warnock, who is scheduled to reacquaint himself with Sheffield United on Tuesday evening.
Now, after his achievements at Bramall Lane were sullied by the historical revisionists, Chris Wilder is being given the same type of treatment. If Slavisa Jokanovic is able to deliver a promotion, overcoming some of the obstacles placed in his way earlier this summer, no doubt his biography will also be subject to a reprint should the next guy – or maybe even girl - in the hot seat meet or exceed expectations.
The denigration of a former manager’s accomplishments, whenever one of their successors strikes a chord or does well, is one of the most curious, frustrating and, in certain cases, insidious and Machieavellian phenomenons in modern football. It doesn’t just happen at United, with Jose Mourinho being shown the same disrespect by some Chelsea followers during the reigns of Antonio Conte and now Thomas Tuchel. What happened to those Stoke City supporters and officials - because a smart suit doesn’t make you any less impressionable or malleable - who were labelling Tony Pulis a tactical dinosaur as he kept their club’s head above water in the Premier League? The Potters, albeit showing signs of recovery under Michael O’Neill, are now spending a fourth straight season in the Championship. Nigel Clough and Saturday’s opponents Derby County? Again, enough said.
But this column is about United. So let’s get back to S2 where, according to the narrative being peddled by some folk, Wilder is no longer one of the most successful men to lead the team which represents the red and white half of the city in its entire 132 year history. Instead, he is the guy who must shoulder the lion’s share of the blame for their slide out of the top-flight and, until Jokanovic flexed his muscle to bring about some progress in the transfer market, their poor start to the present campaign. It is a charge most sensible observers, whether they choose to voice their opinions or not, know is a complete and utter fabrication. Or, to use the language of the terraces, a ******* put-up job. The type often conjured by some slick PR with an inflated sense of their own intelligence and who thinks those outside the industry can’t see through the smoke.
Wilder wasn’t perfect. Neither was Warnock, who led United to the highest level 15 years ago. But they were both, despite encountering different challenges and circumstances, damn good at their jobs, Still are in fact, with Wilder delivering two promotions on a shoestring and then a ninth placed PL finish before results started to go south.
The charge I keep seeing levelled at the 53-year-old concerns finances - that he failed to deliver value for money in the transfer market and, as a consequence, left United with little room for manoeuvre when they were eventually relegated last summer.
Yes, as I mentioned at the time, I felt he was unwise to pick such a public fight with the ownership when their relationship broke down. Even though, without taking sides, he felt he had been left with no other option. Yes, there were some expensive and strategic mistakes when it came to squad-building. Particularly towards the end of his time in charge.
But all managers, coaches and heads of recruitment make these. And context is important. The ability to pay big wages, not transfer fees, is now what separates the best from the rest. Having risen from the third to the first tier of the game in only three seasons, United didn’t have this ability and were eventually caught out as they felt compelled to abandon their policy of unearthing uncut gems in the lower divisions and polishing them into diamonds.
It isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s just how it is and explains why, even those sides whose ascents are more gradual, struggle to retain elite level status unless they have at least one billionaire sitting around the boardroom table. Barring a major change in their circumstances, it is a problem United will have to address again if - fingers crossed - Jokanovic helps take them back up.
With United banking an estimated £223.6m in PL solidarity, prize and other associated payments during his final two terms at the helm, I’d suggest Wilder’s employment there ended with him well in the black. That’s before you consider the increased sponsorship and advertising fees they will have commanded across that period. The value of players signed at his behest, including John Egan, George Baldock, Enda Stevens and John Fleck has risen considerably. Another, Aaron Ramsdale, was recently sold to Arsenal for what United described to journalists as a “head-turning” sum. I’m not so sure it was, but they still made an £8m profit - admittedly before the goalkeeper’s salary is factored in - within the space of around 12 months. Not a bad return, by anyone’s measure. Oh, and United’s profile soared too. Commentary in the mainstream and social media won’t define Wilder’s legacy. The honours board will.
Anyone seeking to redress the balance, point out that someone who shook the club out of a coma isn’t the source of all its present ills, is labelled an apologist by some and worse by others, The same as those who reminded, when Warnock’s legacy was also being rewritten to settle some old scores, that it didn’t really matter a jot who was the biggest Blade.
But it is important to highlight fallacies and misinterpretations. Because, if they are allowed to go unchallenged and influence public opinion, United won’t be as equipped to pass some of the tests they will face if they do return to the PL, as they should be. This type of myth, the unnecessary blame game, does Warnock, Wilder, Jokanovic and others working behind the scenes to help United prosper a disservice. As well as this great sporting institution as a whole.