Sheffield United: 'Yes, it was tough, but Southampton taught me so much'

First, it was the battle to become the centre-forward's shoe shine boy. Then, after a particularly bad result in a minor knockout competition, the seemingly endless circuits of a stadium now consigned to the history books.

Friday, 13th September 2019, 12:45 pm
Updated Friday, 13th September 2019, 21:18 pm
Chris Wilder has led Sheffield United into the Premier League: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Two experiences which, as Chris Wilder reflects on his apprenticeship at Southampton, the 51-year-old credits with helping him become the person he is today.

"Everyone there at the time was trying to clean Steve Moran's boots," Wilder says, fidgeting behind a desk at Sheffield United's training complex ahead of their meeting with his former club tomorrow afternoon. "He scored goals, lots of them, and gave his boot boy a fiver every time he did. I got him for about half a season and it added to the £27.40 or whatever I was on at the time."

Despite being rooted in the Steel City, despite being weaned on greasy chip butties and pinches of snuff, The Dell was where Wilder first learnt his trade after rejecting an invitation to enroll on United's youth programme. Although he failed to make a senior appearance for The Saints, returning to Bramall Lane after being released from his contract, Wilder still had fond memories of his time in Hampshire. Indeed, tracing his journey from aspiring young player to Premier League manager, he believes it was responsible for shaping both his personality and approach to the game.

Chris Wilder turned professional with Southampton: Simon Bellis/Sportimage via PA Images

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"It was a fantastic education, it was my formative years that made me as a footballer and a person really," Wilder continues. "I went down as an associated footballer and moved away at 16. If you look at the amount of players that club has produced, I never made a senior appearance for Southampton, but that tells you something and I'm ever grateful for that opportunity.

"There were four or five England captains there, then. Not making it there, getting released at 19, was possibly the first disappointing thing that happened to me in football. Then, I had to dust myself down and bounce back which, being honest, is what this business is all about."

Wilder shared digs with a certain Phil Parkinson during his time on the south coast. But, as United prepare to build on their encouraging start to the season, the 51-year-old reveals it was the senior pro's, not the future Bolton Wanderers manager, who were his biggest influences.

"Just seeing those players from a day to day point of view, you saw them close up and personal and we saw the games too," he says. "It was a brilliant experience. They had an endless list of players with big careers. Mark Wright, Steve Moran, Glenn Cockerill, Kevin Keegan, it goes on."

Peter Shilton: Jakob Ebrey/Macesport/PA Wire.

"We had some great coaches at the time," Wilder adds. "The manager was Lawrie McMenemy, taking a team from the old Second Division and winning the FA Cup. He attracted the likes of Keegan and Peter Shilton to Southampton, this quiet city on the south coast. It was, like I said, just a brilliant education to be around them and watch what they did."

After embarking upon the first of his two spells with United, Wilder also represented the likes of Charlton Athletic, Rotherham and Bradford City before joining his final club Halifax. But it was in the dug-out where he has truly excelled, enjoying great success with Oxford and Northampton before mastermind the first of two promotions with his beloved United. After finishing second in the Championship last term, they climbed to 10th following a 2-2 draw with Chelsea a fortnight ago. The fighting spirit Wilder has instilled in his squad was in evidence at Stamford Bridge where, after conceding twice before the break, goals from Callum Robinson and substitute Lys Mousset saw them secure a share of the spoils in west London.

Again, Wilder attributes his combative attitude and relentless nature to his time with United's latest opponents.

"I might be chucking a few coaches and managers under the bus," he says, remembering one painful incident still seared into his memory. "But we once got beat 5-0 at home to West Ham in the Southern Junior Floodlit Cup. We were in the next morning at 6am running around the pitch 40 times. I think they were trying to tell us it wasn't really acceptable and wouldn't be happening again!

Lawrie McMenemy managed Southampton

"Joking aside, it was a great time. We had a winning culture instilled in us all. If you ask all the boys there at that time, they'll say the same thing. Just look at the players they have produced."

United have developed plenty too, with captain Billy Sharp and defender Phil Jagielka two home-grown names who could feature in their starting eleven. Robinson and David McGoldrick, who like Sharp and Wilder is a former Southampton player, are expected to be fit after sustaining minor knocks on international duty with the Republic of Ireland.