Sheffield United: Why Chris Wilder has outlawed some of footballer's favourite new fashions

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder tells The Star’s James Shield why, as his team’s preparations for the Premier League begin in earnest, buzzwords have been banned at Bramall Lane

By James Shield
Friday, 28th June 2019, 12:05 pm
Updated Sunday, 30th June 2019, 11:04 am
There is a line, in terms of language, Chris Wilder is determined not to cross
There is a line, in terms of language, Chris Wilder is determined not to cross

Some people reckon it sounds clever. A snappy catchphrase which illustrates their footballing intelligence.

But Chris Wilder is always left feeling distinctly unimpressed whenever he hears folk discuss a club's DNA.

Winning promotion sparked wild celebrations in the red and white half of Sheffield: Danny Lawson/PA Wire.

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"I hate that shout because it's b******s," he says, with a shake of the head to underline his disgust. "What does it mean? Nothing to be honest. And that, really, is my point."

Wilder, regarded by some as Sheffield United's greatest ever manager, is not one for buzzwords or pithy soundbites. The 51-year-old, who earlier this summer led them to promotion from the Championship, makes no secret of his contempt for those he suspects of prioritising image over substance. After all, this is the guy who spoke about "winning tackles, headers and races" when asked to describe his formula for success three seasons ago.

But Wilder's methods, the ones which mean his fourth at the helm will take place in the Premier League, are a great deal more complex than his reply would suggest. Indeed, as he prepares to confront arguably the greatest challenge of his long and varied career, opponents will be making a mistake if they dismiss United as a physical, uncultured team. Or, perhaps most intriguingly, one trick ponies.

"You've go to keep evolving and you've got to keep taking those small steps," continues Wilder, acknowledging he is already planning a number of subtle changes to how they go about their business. "We're not going to rip up everything we've done and change everything, I don't think that's fair.

Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe: Peter Byrne/PA Wire.

"We can't do that and we will go about it our way - the Sheffield United way - and believe that it's going to be good enough to succeed."

Whether or not Wilder's hunch proves correct will become apparent over the next 11 months, as his squad embarks upon what is expected to be a battle for survival. Despite the announcement of a new record breaking sponsorship agreement, which explains his presence at Bramall Lane when he might otherwise have been in the office plotting transfers, Wilder's employers still lack the same spending power as the overwhelming majority of their top-flight rivals. Still, as United prepare to enter a world where multi-million pound contracts are the norm, he remains convinced that the basis of a blueprint, largely unchanged since 2016's League One title triumph, is still relevant. Brains, Wilder insists, are far more important than financial brawn.

"From our point of view, we have to improve and we have  to improve in terms of recruitment, we have to improve off the pitch and so on," he says. "I think it would be foolish to rip up what has been successful for us over the past three years, though."

"That isn't to say we're going to be arrogant enough to come into the division and not change," Wilder continues. "We've got to be cute and play smarter and tailor the game and the approach because we are looking at different kinds of opponent now."

Burnley manager Sean Dyche: Nigel French/PA Wire.

United's modus operandi is actually much more sophisticated than Wilder's persona might suggest. Indeed, those who have followed their progress since his appointment can testify that, whilst he enjoys living-up to no-nonsense Yorkshire stereotypes, the plain-speaking and industrial language are actually a facade. Behind the abrasive comments, a deep-thinker lurks.

The system responsible for transforming not only United's fortunes but those of his previous clubs too, was first devised during a spell in charge of Alfreton before being tweaked at Halifax, Oxford and then Northampton Town. It has developed into a sophisticated operation, capable of bucking market trends by identifying under-valued talent. But by also relying on his staff's man-management skills, the strategy Wilder believes can establish United in the top-flight still reflects its non-league roots. United's Jake Wright, who worked under Wilder at The Shay, has revealed how he used to make training there so enjoyable that many of his team mates, most of whom had gone without pay for months, still reported for duty. Which, it later transpired, was the point of the exercise.

Wilder's faith in the ability of players to better themselves in the right sort of environment is, of course, not unique. Burnley and AFC Bournemouth, whose own climbs through the divisions have inevitably drawn comparisons with recent events at United, both established themselves at the highest level with teams stuffed to the brim with previously unheralded names.

Wilder admits their achievements will provide United with encouragement. But not, as he articulates the differences between all three, a survival template.

Sheffield United excelled last season: James Wilson/Sportimage

"Everybody will want to attach us to a Burnley or a Bournemouth or a Brighton but we just want to go about it in our own way and stay in the division - that has to be the ambition. That's not being negative, it's just being realistic."

"It's difficult with the clubs that you're in with but we want to do it our own way," Wilder continues. "There is obviously inspiration from your Burnley's and your Bournemouth's and your Brighton's who are not the powerhouses of English football but who have established themselves in the Premier League."

By a twist of fate, United will begin the new season at the Vitality Stadium on August 10. The match pairs them against opponents who, two years ago, worked alongside them at a warm-weather training camp in Spain.

"It's a good story that when we were on pre-season in Spain a while back, Bournemouth were there as well," Wilder agrees. "The likes of Harry Arter and Simon Francis and Charlie Daniels ,who played in that League One team,  were playing in the Premier League. I think that was their second season in the Premier League.

"It shows that it can be done but what you have to do, first and foremost, is get there and establish yourself and get a foothold in the division and stay in the division."

As his team navigated its way out of the second tier, Wilder's pioneering take on the 3-5-2 system was praised by none other than Marcelo Bielsa, his counterpart at Leeds. Listening to the Argentine hail United's approach as "worthy of study" - Bielsa is cited as an inspiration by compatriots Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone - confirmed Wilder has an excellent grasp of tactics as well as his charges' personalities.

Chris Wilder is no fan of buzzwords: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

"I'm thankful I was offered the job three years ago and I've been delighted and proud about how we've gone about it," he says. "We've gone about it in our own way. What other owners or chairman do and whatever pathway they go down - appointing a young manager who played for England or who was one of the best players in the world or a foreign influence - it's their choice and what they want to do.

"I think for us to get into the situation we have, we've done it our way, done it the right way and correctly because if we hadn't then we wouldn't have had the success we've had."

Sheffield United's players report back for training this week, as Chris Wilder's squad draw a line under their promotion celebrations to begin the serious business of preparing for Premier League football, writes James Shield.

Their first challenge, before next month's friendly against Real Betis in Portugal, will be passing a series of tests designed to assess how well they have looked after themselves since finishing as Championship runners-up last term.

"Everyone gets instructions before they go away," Wilder said. "They know the weight, and all the other indicators, we expect them to hit when they come back."

Although they were rewarded for reaching the highest level with a trip to Las Vegas, Wilder's charges were still expected to hit a series of fitness related targets during the close season. With August's visit to AFC Bournemouth now only 41 days away, United's coaching staff want to spend their time fine-tuning tactics and team shape rather than trying to help people reach peak condition.

"Gone are the days when players used to be able to do what they liked over the summer," Wilder continued. "It's not like anymore and we pride ourselves on being fit. You have to be with the way we play."

After facing Betis at The Algarve Stadium on July 12, United return to England for meetings with Burton Albion, Chesterfield, Northampton Town and Barnsley before travelling to The Vitality Stadium. Depending upon the progress of improvement works at Bramall Lane, they could also stage a warm-up fixture on home soil following July 27th's visit to Oakwell.


July 12: Real Betis

July 16: Burton Albion

July 20: Northampton Town

July 23: Chesterfield

July 27: Barnsley

Chris Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Sheffield United are planning to keep evolving: Simon Bellis/Sportimage