Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder's future and the story of a revealing pre-match media conference
A few people will claim it was a coping mechanism. Others, including those trying to pretend there really is ‘nothing to see here’, as an attempt to lift spirits and morale behind the scenes.
But Chris Wilder’s demeanour, during today’s pre-match media conference, smacked of something else. Something more serious, something much more significant and consequential, than simply being a ploy to raise morale as Sheffield United continue their inexorable slide towards relegation.
With his team languishing at the bottom of the Premier League table and 15 points adrift of safety, the 53-year-old’s upbeat mood ahead of tomorrow’s game against Aston Villa surprised even the most seasoned of Bramall Lane watchers on this morning’s Zoom call. Particularly as, having answered a routine enquiry about injuries and team selection, he skillfully steered the conversation towards his own future.
“We always plan short, medium and long term,” Wilder said. “But that plan is determined by other people than me. I’ve not had those conversations. I think they should be, but they’re not happening.”
Wilder has always been open and frank in his dealings with journalists since being appointed in the summer of 2016. But seldom as open and frank as this. Although he stopped short of explicitly acknowledging there is a difference of opinion about strategy behind the scenes - or at the very least, a lack of clarity - Wilder did lay a trail of breadcrumbs, steering those on the video tele-conference in the direction of United’s plans for the summer when, barring a dramatic change in fortune and series of ridiculous results elsewhere, they will begin the process of plotting an immediate return to the top flight.
“There’s a plan, because I know what happened at Swansea, what happened at Stoke (City) and what happened at Sunderland when they went down” Wilder continued, simultaneously highlighting how those clubs struggled to keep their big names happy and defending his own recruitment policy in the wake of recent criticism. “I’ll tell you what happened - they ended up with players who either couldn’t or didn’t want to play in the Championship.
“I don’t want to be in a position of having to let Denise and Sue go, for example, who have been here for years if we go down. That’s the reason I have a plan, so we will be able to pay the wages and people behind the scenes won’t have to be got rid of.
“But we can still give it a go. Look at Chelsea, and what Stamford Bridge used to be like compared to now. Look at Manchester City, and how the same thing has happened there compared to where they were not so long ago. But you also have to be aware that someone like Tony Bloom comes in at Brighton, takes what they do to another level, and they’re still battling to stay in the division. That’s why I have a plan.”
Wilder’s decision to go public with the details, and warn his own future could be in doubt unless it is followed almost to the letter, was, in one sense, a maneuver designed to resonate with his audiences in the boardroom and beyond. But listening to him speak, watching him laugh and joke his way through some pretty serious lines of questioning, it was impossible not to reach the conclusion that he is now tired of the politicking which has become ingrained in United’s DNA over the past couple of decades. He arrived at the meeting with something to say and, for reasons which could become clearer over the next few months, was determined to get it off his chest not matter what. It is the actions of someone fast approching the end of their tether but still determined to get their own way.
“I don’t know,” Wilder replied, his voice trailing away, when asked if he would definitely be remaining in charge. “I don’t know. Head down and onto the Villa game. Then what will be will be. I want to stay, definitely. If we stick to the plan.”
Although the situation is not irreparable - United’s owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud confirming earlier this term he wants to retain Wilder’s services - there are clearly issues which need ironing out.
For that reason, when Wilder’s attention turned towards opponents now challenging for Europe despite nearly dropping out of the top-flight themselves last season, one suspected he was actually talking about his own football club rather than Dean Smith’s Villa.
“They’ve spent money and done brilliant,” Wilder said. “They’ve got brilliant fans like us too. I think they’re a brilliant club. They’re a huge club. People in football know how big they are.
“(Jack) Grealish got promoted with his hometown club and Dean got promoted with his hometown club. There’s a connection there with Sharpy (United captain Billy Sharp) and I. They’re a great club with great people in charge. Look at how much they’ve had to invest in the team to have the season they’ve had.”
Wilder, who had wanted to sign both Ollie Watkins and Matty Cash before Villa snatched them from his grasp over the summer, privately concedes United are unlikely to survive even if they beat the former European champions. His blueprint, designed to deliver the third promotion of his reign, is centred on retaining the majority of the existing squad and bringing in a select band of handpicked new faces. If United’s directors decide to go down that route, having put a block on business during the winter transfer window, Wilder promises it comes with a cast iron guarantee.
“Everything I do, it’s not personal, it’s for the betterment of this football club,” he said. “I only want the best for us and to make sure we keep moving forward.”