Danny Hall: Iconic boss Chris Wilder deserved a Fergie-esque send-off from Sheffield United - even a statue may not be enough
After five years at the helm, after two promotions and countless memorable moments that will last a lifetime and putting his club back on the footballing map, Chris Wilder deserved better.
He deserved a public thank you and show of gratitude from a club he helped drag from the doldrums all those years ago. He deserved to be carried away from Bramall Lane on fans’ shoulders, arguably after retiring à la Sir Alex Ferguson. For all he has done in this corner of South Yorkshire, he probably deserves a statue.
Even then, that would not seem like recognition enough for a man who inherited a club that was on the floor in 2016, and dragged it to the very top by its bootstraps. That this season will ultimately end in relegation should not diminish the remarkable four that preceded it. Wilder’s United journey is one that should be remembered forever in the history of this proud football club.
It was an absolute joy and privilege to cover. Wilder’s first game in charge, away at Bolton, was also my first covering United on a full-time basis, and I’m not sure either of us really had an inkling of what would follow.
Certainly not a few weeks later when United went bottom of the league after losing away at Millwall. After the game, an interviewer from Sky asked him if he feared for his job, after five games in charge of his boyhood club. He answered diplomatically before letting everyone present know in no uncertain terms what he thought of the question. The exact words used are not suitable for a newspaper.
That first win as Blades boss arrived a week later, and United and Wilder didn’t look back. We in the media were effectively granted backstage passes to his greatest days as Blades boss and I will never forget that day at Northampton Town when the Blades finally escaped League One, seeing the emotion of Wilder when Sixfields finally cleared and the enormity of what he had achieved set in.
We bumped into him as he floated through the catacombs of Hillsborough after the Mark Duffy-inspired Bouncing Day victory, and shared an uncomfortably small, cupboard-like room away at Hull as he let rip at his side’s performance and the walls felt like they were closing in by the second.
Those press conferences early in his reign, before the media madness of the Premier League kicked in, were the highlight of the week. In a small room at the former working men’s’ club building that United called their training ground, Wilder held court with a handful of local journalists and, once the cameras stopped rolling and the tapes were switched off, often stayed behind to chew the fat. And absolutely no topic, it seemed at times, was off limits.
Seeing him up close like that, it is no surprise at all that he has been such a successful manager. He is a natural leader of men and many times, after a press briefing, I felt like I would run through a brick wall for this man. I can only imagine how those lucky enough to pull on that red-and-white shirt and play under him felt as they were sent in to battle. Suddenly, the thought of whatever big game loomed large at the weekend did not seem so daunting.
Under Wilder, United fans knew that their team may not always win – although they more often than not did, especially in the early days – but that they would always give everything. And, on the rare occasion those standards slipped, the man in the dugout would not sugar-coat anything. Because he knew what it was like to sit where they now sat, following their heroes in red and white up and down the country with very often not much to really show for it.
After the mind-numbing banality of some of the press conferences of his predecessor, Nigel Adkins – local writers used to joke that they could have written his quotes up before they even turned up, because he rarely deviated in his line – it was a breath of fresh air. Wilder was not only good for a line, but good with the media full stop.
He embraced the rise in social media snippets when it became more prevalent, even when it took up even more of his time, even if it wasn’t always plain sailing. Every journalist who covered United over his tenure probably felt his wrath at one stage or another, and two instances stand out in my mind. One came when I explained to fans the reason why a Manchester City goal at the Etihad hadn’t been disallowed after referee Chris Kavanagh collided with John Fleck.
I didn’t agree with the decision, but it didn’t matter what I thought and I explained the rule – that the ball hadn’t struck Kavanagh directly, so the goal would have to stand. Safe to say Wilder, already fuming, didn’t agree, and let me know as I travelled back over the Snake Pass that night.
At the next press conference, he made a point of wishing me good morning and it was like nothing had happened.
Another time he took exception to a headline that a colleague had attached to a story of mine. That was just before football stopped because of the Covid-19 pandemic and press conferences moved online, so it is a regret that I never saw Wilder in the flesh again while he was United boss.
Who knows if I will in the future? I’d like to think so. Even if it is to shake his hand, wish him well for the future and thank him for all the good times that he brought to a club that was a hell of a lot of fun to cover while he was at the helm.