• Joshua Schneider-Weiler

The Making of Chris Wilder

Sheffield United Manager, Chris Wilder
Sheffield United Manager, Chris Wilder

Sheffield United has been the surprise of the Premier League season so far. After 12 games, Sheffield sit in 5th place and ahead of the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham. One of the big reasons is the manager, Chris Wilder. Josh Schneider-Weiler spoke with James Shield (@JamesShield1) of the Sheffield Star about his managerial influences and how he ended up manager of Sheffield. It turns out, if you examine his history, Sheffield United's success this season should not be a surprise. Listen to the full interview here.

The Person

"I just think he's someone who just loves football basically, and I think he enjoys working with footballers as well. And what I mean by that is he does enjoy the technical side of the game. He does enjoy the coaching side.

But I think Chris' real love and this is how I would best describe him, he's just somebody who loves footballers and loves working with fellow professional people and that's something that has really come out during the course of his managerial career.

And I think he's also helped him negotiate sort of safe passage through some pretty difficult periods in his career as well.

The best way I would describe him is someone who's very, very driven. He's had to be, because he's not been handed anything in his managerial career on a plate. He started at the bottom of the ladder and he's worked his way up, but most of all I think he's just somebody who enjoys the company of other people who love football.

Old School Manager

"Yeah, he's almost what I would call an unlikely manager or an unlikely premier league manager in the sense that I think in this day and age an awful lot of manager's dealings with the media now, especially in the premier league, it has become very much about image. It's become very much about sort of portraying a corporate message and and stuff like that.

It's something that Chris doesn't really have an awful lot of time for. In fact, I know for a fact it's something that really gets up his nose at times. And so he's just very, very down to earth. If you ask him a question, you will get an honest answer. And there's times when that sort of has caused him a little bit of difficulty.

There was an incident very recently at Sheffield United where one of his players' [goalkeeper Dean Henderson] committed what turned out to be a very, very costly mistake in a very, very high profile game. And unlike a lot of managers, Chris just turned round, we asked him about it after the match. He said, 'listen, yeah the kid did make a mistake. It did probably cost us the game. I have an awful lot of faith in him, but if he wants to progress, we can't have too many of these going forward.'

A lot of other journalists were saying, 'well, you can't criticize players like that.' I think the player in question, Dean Henderson, the very fact that he's kept countless numbers of clean sheets since. I think the very fact that he got into the England squad since goes to show that (a) yes, you can criticize footballers, and (b) it just goes to show that I think Chris is a manager who understands these footballers. He knows ones that you've got to put an arm around to get the best out of them. He knows the ones within his squad you've got to encourage to get the best out of them. But I think also he knows the ones who possibly need a little bit more of a strong arm approach, and who respond to that type of attitude and that type of handling.

So he's somebody who understands the personality of his players, once again. He's somebody who understands how to handle them to get the best out of them. But also by and large, he's just a very, very honest, down to earth guy.

I think it gives responsibility to footballers. He makes footballers take ownership for their own performances and of their own football clubs, and he makes them feel just a little bit more than an employee. He likes to create a culture and an environment and a real bond between a squad and the club that they're representing.

So, but it's just that ability I think to give ownership, to understand what players are going through because he had to fight for his own career himself, that has enabled him to sort of steer safe passage through some pretty tricky periods.

His Childhood

"Chris grew up on one of the big council estates in the city [Sheffield] and obviously spent an awful lot of his formative years on the terraces at Bramall Lane where Sheffield United play.

One of the things, one of the interesting parts to his story was that when he first started showing some potential as a player playing for Sheffield Boys, which used to be the route that an awful lot of people used to take back into football, back in the old days.

His dad who was also a big, big Sheffield United supporter actually told him not to join Sheffield United although there was an opportunity to do that. He actually went down to Southampton, all the way down on the south coast.

And I think for a young teenager at the time that was a big move going away from home. Southampton had an excellent youth policy at the time. They'd brought through an awful lot of of excellent young players and I think that time away from home, although Chris didn't actually make it at the Dell at the time and ended up coming back to Sheffield United, which I think privately would have been thoroughly delighted by at the time.

But I think the fact that he spent so much time away from home and was almost forced to fend for himself, I think really did sort of shape his development.

Managerial Influences

"I think as a player, the manager who possibly influenced him the most- Chris may well sort of dispute this because I think as he said in the past, all sorts of different managers have left an impression on him- but I think the one who really, really did influence him the most was Dave Bassett, who was a very, very famous manager obviously here at Sheffield United and enjoyed a great deal of success.

Dave Bassett
Dave Bassett

It's interesting that when you speak to Chris and when you speak to Dave, the respect between the two of them is absolutely apparent. It really does shine through in conversations now. But when you speak to them at the time, there was a little bit of tension almost there between them because I think Chris obviously felt they were times when he could be playing more than he actually was, although he did enjoy what you would call a very good, it wasn't spectacular career at Sheffield United, but there was that little bit of tension between the two of them at times.

But what there was, I think there was always this understanding that certainly as Dave Bassett has relayed to me many years on, that Chris was always someone who we knew would give 100% for his football club. He knew that he was always a player that he could rely on to sort of do the right things in training and to show that commitment and to show that attitude.

And these are two words, attitude and commitment that Chris almost uses as a mantra now.

So I think I would certainly say that Dave Bassett, and again another manager who was sort of very pragmatic and also knew how to get the best out of players, irrespective of whether they were world beaters or not. I think that's the guy that I look at and think really did shape Chris's managerial career.

Getting into Management

"Well, he was actually coaching a Sunday league team in Sheffield. That was his first coaching job and I'll just tell you a very interesting little story because I think it is important to let you know what type of manager and what type of person Chris Wilder is but also really cements his relationship with Sheffield United.

There's a pub just across the road from the ground called the Cricketers, and it was just after Sheffield United were promoted from the Championship last season. I was sat with Chris in the stands at Bramall Lane, just doing an interview and talking about everything that had happened and about the challenge that was going to await the club in the Premier League.

He was looking out towards one of the corners of the ground and I just asked him why and he said 'he was laughing because he said that the ground's changed since, but it used to be a fence there. And that was the corner where we sneaked into the ground one night.'

He said 'our Sunday league team had got to a local cup final and we were all having a beer in the pub across the road to celebrate and that cup final was going to be played at Bramall Lane.'

'So what we did was we managed to climb over the fence. The security systems weren't quite as tight and as rigorous as they are now. We got onto the pitch in the middle of the night, we did all the official thing, we lined up, we all shook hands and we had a kick about on the pitch. I thought that was something that would bring us together as a team, but would also possibly get the players over any stage fright they might have playing at a ground such as Bramall Lane.'

And I just think it was a lovely story which tells you about the manager that he is.

Alfreton Town

"In terms of the Alfreton job, it was just through his reputation in the region and just sheer hard work was that he managed to get the manager's position at Alfreton Town. And once gain, I think the people there will tell you, it was one of the most successful periods in their history and it's a common vein through his career.

Been an awful lot of attention on his recent success at Bramall Lane, but every single club that Chris Wilder has been at, be it Alfreton, be it Halifax, be it Oxford, be it then on to Northampton Town and now Sheffield United, he has been a successor. So I don't think you can just say that it's that relationship that he's got with Sheffield United that makes him a successful manager. This is someone who's done it, been there, seen there and done it at other football clubs as well.

Halifax Town

"Obviously at Halifax when Chris got them into the Conference Play-off Final (Fifth Division) which was a pretty remarkable achievement when you consider what was going on at the club at the time, they didn't have a training ground and the players weren't being paid. One of the things that he did was, he just sat back, looked at the guys he was working with, looked at the challenges they were facing in their sort of personal lives as well because of course players at that level don't get paid an awful lot of money, and he just turned it almost into a type of social club.

Wilder as an assistant at Bury following his time at Halifax Town
Wilder as an assistant at Bury following his time at Halifax

And I can remember asking him at the time, why have you done this? Because players were going out to the pub. They were just really being encouraged to enjoy life and concentrate probably on anything other than football, just to enjoy each other's company.

And he said, 'listen, these guys aren't being paid. We still want to achieve something over the course of this season.' And they've very, very nearly did, just being edged out by Hereford in that Conference Play-off Final.

He said, 'I've got to persuade these people to actually turn up and play and still represent us even though they're not being paid, so basically to do that, they've got to enjoy themselves.'

Turning Around Sheffield

"There was an awful lot wrong with Sheffield United at the time. They'd just slept walk through a season in League One. A club like that really shouldn't be finishing mid-table in League One. Countless managers had tried and failed to get them out. He was going to take charge of a club that was going into its sixth season in the third tier of English football. That really shouldn't have been happening at Bramall Lane.

It was a disconnected football club, a very frustrated football club. No connection between any parts of it. Players hated the supporters, supporters hated the players, staff hated players, players hated staff. Just all over the place.

And of course the very fact that everybody knew his relationship with the football club put an awful lot of pressure on his shoulders.

And if you go back to when he took charge of the football club, as I say it was a football club in a coma, he realized that shock therapy was required.

But one of the things that he did was rather than go out and buy players from the Premier League and the Championship, which had happened in the past. I think what Sheffield United ended up with then was players who possibly weren't fit for the Championship because otherwise they wouldn't have been dropping into League One, but were on championship wages, hence the wage bill.

So one of the things he went out and did was was just to say,

'listen who are the best footballers in League One? Who are the best footballers in League Two? Because all of these will jump at the challenge you would expect to play for a club of Sheffield United's stature in this division. Let's go out and sign those.'

And that was one of the things, allied I think with the change of [tactical system] that enabled his first season in the end to be such a success.

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