Sheffield United's manager Chris Wilder identifies the two huge battles about to face his team
Earlier this week, when he enjoyed a rare moment of downtime ahead of Sunday’s match against Fulham, Chris Wilder travelled across the Pennines for a routine health check organised by the League Managers’ Association.
“It’s just for the old ticker and things like that,” he told journalists earlier today, during Sheffield United’s pre-match media briefing. “It’s something we always do, although mine is probably racing a little bit quicker at the moment.”
Having watched his players lose their opening four outings of the season, and preparing them to face opponents also without a point so far this term, no one was surprised to learn that Wilder’s heart beat rate is up. But the appointment in Manchester proved to be therapeutic. A reminder, as Bramall Lane braces itself for a fixture of potentially huge significance, that even bigger and more devastating battles are being fought by others elsewhere.
“I asked the guy who was overseeing it all if he was a football fan and, when he replied ‘yes’, if he followed Manchester United or Manchester City? I thought he lives here, he works here so it’s bound to be one of those,” Wilder continued, recounting the conversation which helped him put United’s difficulties into perspective. “He told me it was neither. He was a Macclesfield Town fan and I think that shows, because he’s based somewhere with two giants on his doorstep, what is special about our game in this country.”
The structure of English football - its politics, powerbases and unique pyramid - has been under the microscope this week, ever since the authors of ‘Project Big Picture’ published their controversial document. Liverpool and Manchester United, who together with EFL chairman Rick Parry were responsible for cooking up proposals to hand lower league teams a larger share of the Premier League’s broadcast revenues but grant themselves enhanced voting rights, saw their idea unanimously rejected by the organisation’s other members at a summit meeting on Wednesday. But coming after City’s chief executive Ferran Soriano resurrected the conversation about creating top-flight ‘B’ teams, and before former England international Gary Neville launched his manifesto for an independent regulator to govern the sport, change is definitely in the air. Not all of it, if officials at Anfield and Old Trafford eventually get their way, good. Particularly for the likes of United who, after finding themselves in League One when Wilder was appointed only four years ago, are now attempting to establish themselves at the highest level.
Rather than being led by billionaire owners and spin doctors, Wilder believes that fans should be the ones shaping the narrative about the future of the sport in this country.
“This is our second year in and we’d like to continue to be involved in the Premier League,” Wilder, who led United to a ninth placed finish last term, said. “The governance of the highest league in our country, looking from a distance has been exemplary and very impressive. There’s always opportunities to improve it and it has improved. But I understand where people like Gary are coming from.
“The people who own clubs, they aren’t owners, they are custodians. We have a unique aspect of our game and we have to cherish that and look after it. We don’t want to see teams going out of business. Bury going out of the pyramid was a scandal.
“The biggest thing for me is supporters. Everybody talks about administrators, players retire, owners come and go. But the supporters are always there. They understand the game at the highest level as much as anyone. Their love is their club but their love is also football.”
Wilder’s immediate concern is selecting a team to face the visitors from London, with a combination of injuries sustained on international duty and Covid-19 protocols threatening to rob him of several key players. But, having worked at Gigg Lane himself long before financial mismanagement helped extinguish nearly 135 years of history, he is aware there is also a bigger and, in the grand scheme of things, more important picture to consider.
“I’ve short term things on my mind, like picking a team,” he continued. “But the supporters are the stakeholders, they are the biggest group. There’s the Spirit of Shankly (fans’ group) at one club (Liverpool) and another that was managed by the most successful manager in English football (Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson) in my opinion. They were down to earth football guys but they had modern methods and thinking. A penny for their thoughts, about what’s going off in English football at the moment. It’s a delicate situation. I’m sure it’ll get sorted out and we’ll come to a better place. It’s a unique game that doesn’t need too much tampering with.”
Unfortunately - and probably to Wilder’s frustration, although he diplomatically brushed aside attempts to explore why - United’s inability to recruit one of the two centre-halves he had identified as potential cover and competition for Jack Robinson ahead of this evening’s transfer deadline means the same can not be said of a squad boasting only one left-footed centre-half until Jack O’Connell recovers from surgery. With Oliver Burke, John Fleck, David McGoldrick and John Egan all possibly unavailable for selection, Wilder could be required to make changes for United’s assignment against a Fulham side also hoping to avert a fifth straight defeat. Rhian Brewster, United’s record signing, is expected to make his debut following a £23.5m move from Liverpool as Wilder looks to test a Fulham defence which has already been breached 11 times since Scott Parker delivered promotion earlier this year.
“Fulham are a team that’s been in and out the last few years, but before that were an established Premier League club,” Wilder said. “I’m not writing us off at this early stage and Scott won’t be writing his guys off either. They’ll have that siege mentality coming in, where people have an opinion on them, the same as here.”