Sheffield United: The Wolverhampton Wanderers legend who would admire Chris Wilder's Blades
Of course, he would have been cheering on the opposition. After all, as one fellow manager wrote in his autobiography, Stan Cullis “would have died for Wolverhampton” Wanderers.
But the late, great defender, whose love of discipline and technical excellence delivered three championship crowns to Molineux, would have respected the approach Sheffield United have adopted in the Premier League this season. Indeed, as they prepare to lock horns with his former club, it is quite possible Cullis would have recognised it as being similar to his own.
Eighteen years after his death, the man responsible for turning Wolves into one of the strongest teams in England still looms large over their stadium. A statute, located in front of the stand which has been named in his honour, is a reminder of his legacy; both on and off the pitch.
Chris Wilder and his players, whose coach will pass this bronze tribute when it snakes towards the ground on Sunday lunchtime, have plenty of home-grown heroes to try and emulate as they attempt to establish themselves as a top-flight force. But given the parallels between the strategy which has lifted them to sixth in the table and the one Cullis employed during his 16 year reign, they would be advised to stop and reflect upon his methods. Because, given the emphasis Wilder places on both, they demonstrated the power of attitude, character and the determination, no matter how accomplished you are, to try and improve oneself. In short, the former England international’s modus operandi not only proves the wisdom of the 52-year-old’s strategy, it also provides them with a roadmap, in a division dominated by financial behemoths, towards even greater success.
Born in Ellesmere Port, where his family had relocated from the Black Country to help the First World War effort, Cullis went on to join the team his father, an ardent Wolves fan, had demanded he followed too. A formidable centre-half - “The best...I ever met,” Tommy Lawton once opined, “He had the resilience of a concrete wall, the speed of a whippet and the footwork of a ballet dancer” - it was nevertheless in the dug-out where he truly excelled.
But the strength of personality which would later help him assemble one of the greatest sides in the country was in evidence long before he hung-up his boots.
In May 1938, when England’s players received instructions from the Foreign Office to perform a Nazi salute ahead of a friendly against Germany in Berlin - with Adolf Hitler among the 110,000 strong crowd, the fixture was regarded as a propaganda coup by the host country’s murderous regime - Cullis made no secret of his displeasure.
“No thanks,” he responded in exceptionally terse fashion. He was dropped and those who followed orders were later castigated.
When the two nations next met - just under a decade after the end of WW2 - Cullis had just led Wolves to the First Division title. It was the first of three they would win under his stewardship.
Wilder has a long way to go before he ectches his own name into the national consciousness, or is held in the same high esteem, beyond the confines of Bramall Lane, as Cullis. Nor, barring a dramatic change in United’s financial circumstances, is he likely to add a Premier League winners medal to the promotions he has achieved with Oxford, Northampton Town and his present employers. But he does boast a number of things with Cullis, beyond the fact he played for and now manages the club he grew-up supporting.
In an era when tools like ProZone and Wyscout were the stuff of science fiction, Cullis sought to better himself - and doubtless gain an edge over his rivals - by attending night school classes where he studied Esperanto and French. Although not a skilled linguist, Wilder is known to spend hours pouring over the data the latest technological systems provide subscribers, searching for ways to eke even more out of those at his disposal and analysing the methods of those managers he admires and respects.
Jack O’Connell, who lived in Spain as a youngster, has previously spoken about how he pores over footage of La Liga in search of new defensive strategies while, together with fellow Liverpudlian Mark Duffy, he believes boxing helps him remain disciplined. Despite being dispatched on loan to Stoke, Duffy was a key member of the side which finished second in the Championship last term. Oliver Norwood, who captains United in Billy Sharp’s absence, has already revealed plans to enter the world of coaching when he retires.
“You can always learn something,” Wilder said, before last weekend’s draw with Manchester United. “You never know it all. The minute you think you do, this business has a habit of sneaking up and biting you on the arse.”
According to Bob Paisley, the legendary Liverpool manager, Cullis never used industrial language despite his uncompromising outlook.
“While Stan was volatile and outrageous in what he said, he never swore,” Paisley remembered, quarter of a century before Cullis’ death in 2001. “And he could be as soft as mash. He would give you his last penny.”
But he would have admired how Wilder and his squad, who three years ago were languishing in the third tier, have used a combination of industry and invention to transform United’s fortunes. Despite being forced to share the points with the visitors from Old Trafford, Oli McBurnie’s last gasp equaliser salvaging a result after they had surrendered a 2-0 lead - United overwhelmed Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s men for the majority of the contest. Strong in the tackle - Manchester United appeared unnerved until Brandon Williams’ effort sparked a dramatic seven minute comeback - Wilder’s players also confused the visitors with some scintillating passing and movement off the ball. They will need more of the same if they are to beat a Wolves team which climbed to fifth following a win over AFC Bournemouth and are unbeaten in eight outings; the club’s best run of results at the highest level since 1974. United, meanwhile, have not lost in six but could be without centre-forward Lys Mousset (hamstring). If the Frenchman fails to recover in time, McBurnie is likely to start alongside David McGoldrick, while goalkeeper Dean Henderson is expected to return after being ineligible for selection against his parent club.
“It’s just onto the next game,” Wilder said, as the dust settled on that match. “All we’re looking at now is getting ready, and trying to get better, for the trip to Wolves.”