It spoke volumes about the depth of his frustration, revealed so much about the angst he feels, that what should have been an opportunity to celebrate all that is good about Sheffield United instead became a vehicle for Chris Wilder to question if he can continue as their manager.
Less than half an hour after this defeat by Preston North End had dashed his team’s play-off hopes, the 50-year-old strode into Bramall Lane’s media suite and delivered a speech which, following a brief preamble about the match itself, laid bare the challenges he is facing behind the scenes.
Wilder’s words, his first real intervention into the dispute between Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Yorkshire-based businessman Kevin McCabe, did not make pleasant reading for supporters. Nor a squad which, after lifting the League One title last season, has adapted remarkably well to life in the Championship. But the boardroom, where the two co-owners are fighting for sole control, was the intended target.
“It’s 100 per cent critical it gets resolved,” Wilder said. “I can’t do my job properly unless there is a direction and decision from them.
“Any club that wants to be successful has to have harmony, direction and a plan. There isn’t a plan, there isn’t direction, and there isn’t harmony either. That, unfortunately, is fact.”
Wilder had cut an unusually subdued figure throughout a match settled by Alan Browne’s second-half goal. As Alex Neil gesticulated furiously on the touchline, he stood motionless, arms wrapped tightly around his torso, almost from start to finish. Although the number of promising positions United wasted was initially thought to be the subject of Wilder’s ire, it quickly became apparent something much more significant was troubling him: how best to keep improving a club which, financially speaking at least, is punching well above its weight. And, with Prince Abdullah and McCabe barely on speaking terms, whether it is worth bothering at all.
“If it stays the same, I don’t think anybody would be surprised if I didn’t question where my career is going,” Wilder insisted. “I want to progress my career, the careers of the staff and the players and, most importantly, give the supporters hope we can have a genuine club with a strategy and plan to move forward.
“I want to lead it, but I need a bit of help. I am the only voice that comes out of the club. There are a lot of things which need to happen and they need to happen soon and quick. This is a brilliant club which is close to my heart and I want it to move forward in our own way.”
The devil is in the detail
Wilder did not elaborate on exactly what that vision is. Nor did he express a preference for who wins the civil war. But analyse his words closely, decipher the carefully-laid clues, and it is possible to make an educated guess.
Together with Alan Knill, his trusted assistant, Wilder has transformed United’s fortunes using time-served methods and predominately British-based talent. Overseas markets are of interest. But only so long as he decides who comes and goes.
“This is a brilliant, powerful club in this division,” Wilder continued following United’s final home match of the campaign. “We charge sensible prices, season tickets don’t cost the earth. I don’t want to see any of that change or the figures to shoot up. I wouldn’t want that to happen. I’m not picking a fight with one owner or the other. I just need this sorting out.”
“This is my city,” the lifelong United supporter added. “It’s my club. I want to go forward with us. But I can’t do it all on my own.”
Unfortunately, as the lawyers pore over the agreement between Prince Abdullah and McCabe, immediate help is unlikely to be forthcoming unless one admits defeat or a temporary truce is called. United’s performance against Preston again revealed where they must strengthen to remain relevant next term. But, after watching John Fleck, Leon Clarke and Enda Stevens miss chances either side of Browne’s opportunistic finish, Wilder is being forced to focus on politics rather than the summer transfer window.
“Take nothing away from Preston,” he said. “They defended superbly and made the most of what came their way.”