So much has been said, written and heard about Chris Wilder since Saturday’s outpouring of frustration at the Bramall Lane boardroom stand-off but Kevin Gage, Wilder’s former Sheffield United teammate, puts it simply when asked how vital the manager is to the future of the club.
“There’s no other word for it, really,” admits Gage, who played alongside Wilder during the successful Dave Bassett era in South Yorkshire.
“And that’s not just because he’s a mate or anything. Chris is an aquaintance and a friend, but we’re not big mates or anything. I look at the situation as a fan, and a very part-time employee of the club in my role as a matchday host, and it’s crucial that it’s sorted.
“We have a manager that is obviously very good at his job, his track record shows that, and players want to play for him. And it goes without saying that the fans want him as their manager. So it’d be a huge shame if he were to walk out, definitely.”
Wilder, as a lifelong supporter of the Blades, would not do so lightly but raised the possibility during his post-match debrief following Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at home to Preston. Frustrated by an ongoing boardroom impasse between co-owners Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah, Wilder lamented a lack of direction and dialogue from those above him after a defeat that finally ended United’s faint play-off hopes, less than a year after lifting the League One trophy.
“Chris is an ambitious man and is relatively young as a manager, but has been around a long time so he’s battle-hardened,” Gage added.
“He’s been in all sorts of scenarios at different clubs - Halifax Town were in administration, there were problems at Oxford and huge financial issues at Northampton, too. So he’s seen this before and I can understand his frustration and his worries, too.
“He’s seeing this from two sides of the coin, really, as a fan and as a manager. He doesn’t really play the diplomatic card too well - he can perhaps be too honest at times - but that’s why he’s loved, why the fans have taken to him so well.
“And I think it comes through in the players who play for him, as well. They’re a mirror image on the pitch of what he’s like off it, and I think we’re a better club - and certainly a better team - for that.”
But, after topping the table in November, United won just eight league games and travel to Bristol City this weekend 11th in the league tables. With victory at Ashton Gate, and if other results go their way, they can finish as high as eighth.
“Some fans are calling the season as a failure, but I think it’s impossible to think that and I’ll argue to death with anyone who says otherwise,” Gage added.
“You can’t just look at the league table and say ‘we’re mid-table’. That doesn’t tell the story of the season at all for me, and I think we have to be grateful for what we’ve seen this season.
“Entertainment-wise and with the quality of football, it’s been the best I’ve seen at United since I first moved up here in the early 1990s. It’s a shame to see the season ending in a bit of acrimony and arguing behind the scenes, because it takes the gloss of what should be a season to remember.
“Some of the stuff they played in beating sides like Leeds and Wednesday away, and the game they pulverised Hull, was outstanding. Paul Coutts’ injury disrupted our rhythm a bit, but we were still creating the chances. I think we perhaps didn’t get the rub of the green at times, and I think Chris agrees with that, but hopefully it’ll even itself out in future years.”