Sheffield United: The man who worked alongside Sir Bobby Robson says Chris Wilder is among the very best in the business
Reclining on a sofa inside the foyer of the Copthorne Hotel, Mick Wadsworth is discussing his life in football when the conversation turns towards Chris Wilder.
"One of the three best English managers in the game right at this moment," he responds, after taking a bite out of the sandwich which has just been placed in front of him. "Seriously, who else is there? I don't think you can look beyond Sean Dyche, Eddie Howe and Chris."
It is a bold statement. But one Wadsworth, who during a long and varied career has worked with some of the finest names in the business, is eminently qualified to make. Dave Sexton was a former colleague. Sir Bobby Robson much more than that. Yet, despite boasting a contacts book which reads like a 'Who's Who' of coaching, he speaks in reverential terms about Wilder’s achievements. Indeed, as he marvels at his ability to transform Sheffield United's fortunes - leading them from League One to the top-flight in only three seasons – Wadsworth, Robson's assistant at Newcastle, offers what, given the depth of his respect for the late, great man, is an even greater compliment.
"There's so many parallels in terms of background and where they came from," Wadsworth continues, highlighting similarities between Wilder's methods and those employed by his friend and mentor at St James' Park. "One is understanding the power, the importance, of the group and that's something overlooked by a lot of modern coaches and managers.
"Bobby saw it, probably because he came from a mining family. Chris is from this area. Because of that, the same as with Bobby, he's got good solid values. Those perpetuated Bobby's career and I'm sure that's what will happen with Chris. Bobby could bring people with him and you can see, because of the speed of the turnaround, that's what's happened here."
Wadsworth, now United's senior development coach, does not draw such comparisons lightly. Having worked for Robson at the 1990 World Cup, during his spell in charge of England, their partnership was later resurrected in the North-East before Wadsworth left to take charge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although his role with Bramall Lane's academy and women's teams means he observes largely from afar, Wadsworth has already seen enough, and boasts the required experience himself, to appreciate both the scale and the significance of Wilder's achievements.
"People say that he hasn't been in the Premier League yet," he says. "Okay, but he will be soon won't he and to do what he's done at Alfreton, Halifax and Oxford before coming here, clubs that were often in turmoil and weren't financially blessed, that takes something special. Then, to come here and turn it around so quickly, well that speaks volumes. Could (Mauricio) Pochettino have done that? I don't know. Could Jose (Mourinho) have done that? I don't know. But he has. Possibly the only thing comparable to what Chris has done is what Eddie has done at Bournemouth, bringing them up through the divisions and establishing them at the highest level."
On Sunday afternoon, when United complete their season with a visit to Stoke City, Wilder will be able to focus his attention on doing something similar after leading them out of the second tier. This season's promotion, his second since being appointed 36 months ago, completed a remarkable quartet after winning the Conference play-off final at the Kassam Stadium before delivering the League Two title to Sixfields.
"It's comparable with the very best," Wadsworth continues as he warms to his theme. "First, to be a successful manager with longevity is one thing. To get a play-off or a promotion here and there is another. This manager has got three promotions in four years. That's staggering, just staggering. The enormity of it is under-estimated."
United travel to Staffordshire second in the Championship table, five points ahead of Leeds in third and three behind leaders Norwich City but with a superior goal difference. Lacking the same financial resources as many of his counterparts elsewhere in the division, including Marcelo Bielsa at Elland Road, Wilder's methods are now being scutinised by the media and opposition supporters alike. Much of the analysis focuses purely on team spirit. But Wadsworth says that does Wilder a disservice.
"I see similarities between him and Joe Royle in the late Eighties and early Nineties, taking Oldham into the Premier League and then taking Manchester City there too. The similarities are that they're so positive in terms of how they want their teams to play. I always remember Joe going 2-4-4 once when he was chasing a game. I see elements of that in Chris. I was never a cautious manager myself but I wasn't that bold either. It's something I admire."
Wadsworth, whose CV includes spells in charge of Hartlepool, Carlisle and Scarborough when they were a Football League club, has also noticed another important weapon in Wilder's armoury.
"Like Bobby did, he embraces technology and surrounds himself with real expertise. The relationship with Knilly (assistant Alan Knill) is clearly very strong.
"Like I said, Chris, Eddie and Sean are the stand-outs for me in terms of Englishmen at the moment and although they're all very different people with different styles, there will be common points between them. And one of those, clearly, is that ability to carry people with them, to convince them 'this is how we're going to do it' and then making it work."
"Bobby could do it brilliantly as well," he adds. "I remember when he went into Newcastle, they were on their knees. Alan Shearer had been bombed-out, Duncan Ferguson as well and Rob Lee hadn't even been given a squad number by the previous manager. Bobby got all of them together, as well as Gary Speed, and told them they would be playing for the rest of the season come what may. He called them his 'Blue Chip Brigade' and he knew they'd carry the rest of the squad with them. They did. Everyone has their own little tricks.
"People pay fortunes to psychologists and they help us do what we do. But the biggest psychologist at any club is the manager because it all flows from him. The manager is the captain of the ship."
After sailing them through choppy waters, Wadsworth thinks Wilder's success at first team level can benefit other areas of United.
"Let's hope he drags all of us along with it. That we become even better and stronger across the board, a stronger academy, a stronger infrastructure right the way through. Everyone can benefit."
Wadsworth, who is working on a book about his own footballing journey, pays Wilder one final tribute before leaving for the training ground.
"Having worked with Bobby, Dave Sexton and Don Howe, who were paragons of virtue in terms of coaching and management, I think Chris can be compared, given what he's achieved and the manner in which he's achieved it, with anyone."