Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder talks Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson and TV documentaries
He has been asked to tell the story, about how Sir Alex Ferguson once offered good counsel and advice, numerous times before.
Usually when his Sheffield United side prepare to meet their namesakes from Manchester, as they will at Old Trafford on Wednesday evening, or sign a player with links to the 20-time English champions.
Chris Wilder was touched by the great Scot’s interest. And, because he was working for Oxford when Ferguson first made contact, more than a little surprised.
“It’s a mark of the man, with everything he’s achieved, that he even wanted to ring someone like me,” Wilder admitted before United’s 3-3 draw with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team earlier this term.
Seven months on from that momentous tussle, which he last night described as one of his favourite games, the 52-year-old returned to the subject of Ferguson once again. Had those telephone conversations with arguably the greatest manager of our generation, journalists asked during United’s latest pre-match media conference, shaped his own no-nonsense approach to the game?
“I’ve never tried to copy,” Wilder replied. “I think it’s a dangerous one to do that.
“As a manager, you’ve got to go your own way. You’ve got to go with your gut feelings and instincts. Your heart and your head balance.
“Certainly, from watching Sir Alex has done and over the period of time, I know how tough this job is. Especially in the Premier League.
“I look at Roy (Hodgson, the Crystal Palace manager) doing it at 70 odd. It’s an incredible achievement - what they’ve done and what they did. To keep going and reinventing teams, dealing with disappointment - keeping with the times and certain things you have to adapt to. There are things you have to change in small ways, even if you don’t want to.”
Wilder will be forced to employ a similarly flexible approach in the North-West, with the on-loan Dean Henderson ineligible for selection against his parent club and John Egan ruled-out through suspension. There are also question marks surrounding the availability of Phil Jagielka, Egan’s most obvious replacement at centre-half, and striker David McGoldrick. Jack O'Connell is battling to be fit after sustaining an impact injury during an accidental collision at United's Steelphalt Academy training complex.
After remaining seventh in the table despite Sunday’s 3-0 defeat by Newcastle, Wilder’s decision to challenge some of the fiercer condemnation of United’s most recent performance, either inadvertently or otherwise encouraging a siege mentality among his squad, was a ploy torn straight from the Ferguson playbook. But unlike Ferguson, who won 38 major trophies during his near three decade long reign at Manchester United, Wilder chose not to shield those under his command from all of the criticism.
“I’m not an up and down manager,” Wilder said, reflecting upon his response to events at St James’ Park, where a series of defensive errors compounded Egan’s sending-off. “They’ve got no choice really, they either like it or they don’t. I’m around the place, so they’ve got no choice.
“We’ll have a chat but I’m looking at the next challenge now and rubbing my hands together. I know they won’t disappoint me. That won’t determine the result in our next match but, knowing them, I know they won't disappoint me. Obviously being down to ten men and 2-0 down isn’t the best position to be in, but we have to take care of it better than we did.”
A firm believer in the theory that players should be held accountable for their actions, Wilder raised eyebrows among some members of the football community earlier this term when he refused to deny a rare mistake by Henderson had cost United a point against Liverpool. The youngster responded by producing a superb display at Watford seven days later. Wilder will be hoping for a similar reaction from Enda Stevens, whose misjudgement led to Newcastle’s first goal in the North-East.
“I got pulled up on what I said earlier this season and I’m not right bothered if I'm honest,” Wilder continued. “My approach, the players understand, is an honest approach. There’s no hiding place and it’s a tough business, professional football. You're out there in front of thousands of people, doing what you do, and millions are watching on television.
“There’s no hiding place for Enda when he made that mistake. There was no hiding place for Dean. “They’ll be fine. They’ll get on with it. My style is mine and it’s something I’ll continue to deliver. You can’t try and be somebody you’re not.”
United will move above Solskjaer’s men if they record their first win since competition resumed last week, having been suspended in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Wilder watched a documentary on Sir Matt Busby, Ferguson’s famous predecessor, during the break in the fixture schedule.
“There was never going to any of these box sets watched - Homeland or all that stuff - that was never going to be an option,” he said. “If I watch a film, I’ve got to watch it from start to finish. I need a conclusion. I need a finish.
“The Manchester City one I watched and got hardly any sleep because I went all the way through. The one on Sir Matt, it’s brilliant, It's fabulous, It just shows what that club was built on. It gives you a little bit of knowledge.”