Why Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder will always feel indebted to Southampton upbringing

When his team travels down to the south coast this weekend, he will be more determined than ever to win three points and get Sheffield United's season up and running.

Tuesday, 8th December 2020, 5:08 pm
Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder is a former Southampton trainee. (Photo by JASON CAIRNDUFF/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

But whatever the result on Sunday lunchtime, Southampton Football Club will always have a special place in Chris Wilder's heart.

The Saints played at the more modest setting of The Dell when Wilder travelled south as a youngster, years before a move to the more opulent St Mary's.

A young Wilder attracted interest from a number of clubs, including his boyhood one United. His dad Paul turned down United's approach and got hold of a phone number for Saints star Kevin Keegan, which led to his lad being invited down to Southampton for a trial.

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“I wouldn’t change my time down there for the world,” Wilder reflected in the book, He's One of Our Own.

“It was the best decision that could have been made. I moved away at 16 and it was tough and uncompromising, but the stats speak for themselves; I think of our group of 12 boys, 10 went on to have professional careers.

"It was tough but very rewarding… taught life skills as well as football skills. Moving away at 16 from family and all your pals, living over three hours away… it was sink or swim really.

"It taught us discipline and tested us, mentally and physically. I look back now and it was really tough, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Wilder's time on the south coast ended when he was released, and another approach from United saw him move back to Sheffield and sign at Bramall Lane.

But the spell at Southampton also brought him into contact with one Alan Knill, a first-year professional when Wilder first joined.

The two have since worked together, to considerable success, at Bury, Northampton Town and United, going from League Two to the Premier League in the space of four years.

“We had to clean everything, and it had to be checked and then checked again," said Knill of his time at Southampton.

"I find myself at home checking if things have been cleaned, and telling my mum to clean something at her house.

"That work ethic and attention to detail was drilled into you from a young age.

"It was tough but made you better and gave you a proper upbringing. It was a really good place to be and I am like I am today because of it.”

On his return to United as a player, Wilder helped United win promotion to the old First Division and when the Blades faced Southampton in the top flight, boss Dave Bassett handed Wilder the captain's armband.

“It meant a lot,” Wilder later admitted.

“It was Chris Nicholl who had let me go from Southampton so to stand outside the referee’s room to hand in the teamsheet, as a skipper, in the top flight, meant the world to me. As did the result that day. We were 4-0 up in no time!"

A repeat performance, and scoreline, this weekend would be very welcome indeed.