Revealed: The "huge emotional turmoil" Sheffield United's players will be facing after departure of iconic boss Chris Wilder

As their team coach trundled down the M1 to Leicester at the weekend with one familiar face notably absent, Sheffield United's players faced up to life without their talismanic manager Chris Wilder.

By Danny Hall
Thursday, 18th March 2021, 12:00 pm

With Wilder's departure only confirmed the evening before, a period of great upheaval beckoned for a squad that has his fingerprints all over it.

Only two members of the senior travelling party, Billy Sharp and Chris Basham, were not brought to the club by Wilder, and the pair of them were transformed under his tutelage.

Now, collectively and individually, the future seems uncertain.

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Iconic managers leaving is not a new phenomenon, of course, and although United haven't had anyone preside over a Sir Alex Ferguson-length tenure in recent history, there have been a couple of seismic shifts at the top in recent history.

Dave 'Harry' Bassett left in 1995 after seven years at the helm, which included back-to-back promotions back to the old First Division, while Neil Warnock had a marginally longer spell in charge of his boyhood club before it ended acrimoniously following relegation back in 2007.

In both cases - and Wilder's, too - it was a decline in relationships, rather than solely results, that signalled the end.

Chris Wilder left Sheffield United after twice winning promotion: David Klein/Sportimage

"From a players' point of view I don't think it matters whether it's results or boardroom struggle or whatever, it's always difficult to take," said Kevin Gage, who suffered the loss of an iconic manager in Bassett at both Wimbledon and Bramall Lane.

"It's a very distracting and unsettling time for any player. Because obviously you're there because nine times out of 10 the manager has brought you in and played you, and you're obviously uncertain as to your future.

"Players have contracts of course, but it's still a concern as to who's going to come in and what's going to happen."

The Star Football Awards 2017 - Chris Wilder, Kevin Gage and Dave Bassett

Gage came through the ranks at Wimbledon and was a member of the infamous Crazy Gang squad that, under Bassett, achieved remarkable and unprecedented success in the 1980s.

After moving to Aston Villa, he was reunited with Bassett at Bramall Lane and played over 130 times for the Blades, winning the club's player of the year award in 1994/95.

"Harry left the club twice while I was there," Gage added. "First of all with Wimbledon all those years before. We had a similar rise to Chris Wilder s, we came from the old Fourth Division to the First Division in four years, with three promotions, and then we finished sixth in the top flight and then he left.

"So I experienced that and when he left United in '95. Howard Kendall came in and completely changed the way we played. We all knew how he wanted to play football, and it was a million miles from Harry's regime.

"But it's up to you as players to adapt, or be moved on."

United's players were roundly criticised after the Leicester game, both for their performance in a chastening defeat and their emotional reaction in the dressing room after a difficult few days in the club's recent history was capped by the result at the King Power Stadium.

But Gage said: "Players are human beings, they aren't robots who go out and do the same jobs week in, week out. I can understand the performance against Leicester.

"It wasn't absolutely disgraceful, we've been close to having a scoreline like that for weeks and months and it all hit home on that day. You could see in the players' body language, especially in the second half, that it is tough and I felt for them.

"Whereas Chris would have got that extra five or 10 per cent out of the players on the pitch, that would perhaps make up for any deficiencies we have in ability or creativity or speed, now that's gone, I think it'll be difficult for the players to get anything out of this season.

"It's not the be all and end all of our success because we've played with great swagger and confidence and ability but the connection was a big part of our make up and now it's gone, it's going to take an exceptionally good manager to come in and build that back up again.

"It may need a new group of players and a new style or whatever, I don't know. There's no point trying to copy Chris Wilder, because that quality of manager doesn't grow on trees."

Paul Heckingbottom has assumed caretaker charge of United for the remainder of the season, including this weekend's FA Cup quarter-final at Chelsea, and will be assisted by Wilder's No.2 Alan Knill and the former Bournemouth manager Jason Tindall.

"Any decent player can adapt to what the new manager wants in terms of tactics," Gage added. "It's more a case of the uncertainty when a new manager comes in and he's got ideas how he wants to play - who he wants to get rid of and who's going to come in.

"It can create a bit of a them-v-us scenario and a bit of a divide in the squad. That's the issue a new manager will have.

"I think the best way to describe it is that players are now playing for their personal pride. No-one wants to perform badly, you want to give a good account of yourself and it may be that some players play with a bit more freedom now. Who knows?

"They may say they have nothing to lose and go out there and try a few new things. If they come off, then great. If not, then it's not like that's going to get us relegated, because that's already happened. So there's two ways of looking at it, really.

"But for sure, it's incredibly difficult emotionally for the players, I think. It won't be anything physical or technical... it's just a huge emotional turmoil, and that will have an effect."