As Sheffield United prepare to face Arsenal on Monday Night Football, Chris Wilder tells Sky Sports why he wants more than just survival and how he is dreaming of decades of hometown dominance for his boyhood club.
Sheffield United are Premier League now but there is a whiff of Sunday League about the coffee Chris Wilder is sipping on a drizzly morning at the club’s Shirecliffe training ground, perched high – ironically – in rival Wednesday territory.
“Lick of paint, new leather seats, but same old instant in a paper cup!” he laughs as we settle down in a tarted-up meeting room at a complex home to elite-level footballers but still hinting heavily at a past life as a working men’s club. “Premier League, eh? You’d think I’d be able to get a decent cup of coffee now. I’m not asking for much!”
Wilder is hardly high-maintenance – he has remained earthy and affable as his compelling blend of old and new has thrust him up all the way up the pyramid – but behind some gentle ribbing is a reminder that, in the words of one long-serving member of staff, “his fingerprints are all over the club”.
His touch has been transformative wherever he has worked, though he insists the fundamentals of the job have stayed the same from non-league Alfreton and Halifax to the “champagne division” where he has led his club after two promotions in three seasons. It hit home, though, when Liverpool came to town and Jurgen Klopp dropped in for a post-match beer.
Sheff Utd vs Arsenal
October 21, 2019, 7:00pm
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“Do I feel like a Premier League manager now? I just feel like a manager – the job hasn’t really changed – but there are certain times when it gets you. Like when I get Liverpool’s teamsheet! They haven’t left anyone out! They’re playing the full hit! You’re going, ‘Oh wow…’.
“Jurgen popped in after the game, which was refreshing; it’s an amazing league to be in but that’s a little thing that has slightly disappointed me because that doesn’t seem to be a given now. It was really interesting to hear about their recovery and their preparation. They flew from Liverpool to Doncaster. It took them 11 minutes! Eleven minutes! I’ve been banging on at the club that we might have to fly for a couple of these long journeys and the European champions are flying 11 minutes to Sheffield!
“But having a manager working at a top world club in the office was brilliant. At the end of the day, there are two groups of players, two groups of staff. We’re trying to win, they’re trying to win – let’s have a beer afterwards and chat about the game.”
He is doing it, to remarkable effect, his way but he is thirsty to learn as he plots keeping Sheffield United in the division – and plenty more.
“Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino, they’re innovators in football. People might look and think, tracksuit, gruff voice, bit overweight! – but we feel we’re quite up to speed with what’s going on here. I’m always pushing the backroom staff, looking at other clubs and what they do, whether it’s little bits on the pitch, physical conditioning or video analysis.
“It’s a work ethic throughout the club. George Baldock (the wing-back), bloody hell, he’s out training again. He wants to learn everything about the game and who he’s up against. We’re all thinking, where can we improve? People might think I like the sound of my own voice but I’m a listener.”
Some pals in the game told him to enjoy the ride – only if we play well and pick up points, he fires back – but he heeded advice in the summer that he should be himself, that his team – with their overloads and those overlapping centre-backs – should maintain their identity, even if he knew he would need to tweak it to stand a chance.
The most obvious change – facilitated in part by the pre-season emergence of John Lundstram, a fringe player last season – has been a flatter midfield three that Wilder and assistant Alan Knill – a tactical brain to complement the man-management nous – were convinced would help combat the counter-attack.
It is working in that the Blades have conceded the fewest goals from open play and faced 50 fewer shots than fellow newcomers Norwich but the trade-off may be found upfield where they have registered a league-low 20 shots on target and struggled to turn possession into chances. Some are clamouring for a return to the formation that accommodated a more advanced central midfielder – Luke Freeman, a £4m signing from QPR, is a player backed to unlock defences, while the recent loss of David McGoldrick to injury has been felt – but Wilder believes the balance is right so far.
“You can’t take the shackles off completely in the Premier League when you’re Sheffield United and you’ve just come up. We felt that more bodies in that area would strengthen us and it has. If we’d have played two midfield players in there, the way we play, we’d have been really open to the counter. It’s huge in modern-day football now, that speed a team goes from one box to another.
“One thing that won’t change is the three at the back and the two wing-backs because it’s natural round pegs in round holes for us in terms of the way we play, but is the No 10 role still important? I think so. We’ve changed shape a couple of times – a diamond, two nines and a 10, two 10s and a nine – and, when the time’s right, you have to have go-tos. We might open up in certain games when we feel we need to but we’ve been in games. The balance has been good from our point of view in terms of the shape out of possession and what we’ve done in possession.
“The good thing about it is that we are having moments. If we weren’t and we were thinking about changing the whole system, that would be a major issue, but we’re not. The challenge is finding that last little bit, but we found it when Lundstram played that ball for Lys Mousset at Everton, when Enda Stevens crossed and Callum Robinson finished at Chelsea.
“Everyone zoomed in on Dean Henderson after the Liverpool game but I was just as critical of John Fleck. As good a game as he had, when he goes onto his left foot – and I see the ball, Monday to Friday, flying past the goalkeeper – why is he chopping back on his right peg when he only uses it to stand on? I don’t think that’s coachable stuff sometimes. It comes with repetition but also from a bit of confidence and belief. It’s early in the season. Some players are still getting up to speed, some are still finding the pace of it.”
Summer-signings Robinson, Mousset and £17m Oli McBurnie – bought to provide the goals Wilder knows his side will need to score as well as avoid conceding to stay up – are finding their way as veteran Billy Sharp waits in the wings, but the Blades boss is calling for patience.
“They’re not established Premier League players. I think it’s really harsh on them to be critical. Mousset is finding his feet – he didn’t play a lot of games at Bournemouth – and Oli’s finding his feet. I can’t do anything about the price tag – these were the players we could get in terms of attitude, quality, how we play and how we feel they can improve. Now we have to let them grow.
“I’ve got to give them time, we’ve got to give them time as a football club and from a fans’ point of view, they need time and support. They’re playing against Virgil van Dijk – the third-best player in the world behind Ronaldo and Messi – Joel Matip… not mug players. They’ve got to up their game but I’ve no doubt they will do.”
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As he feels compelled to protect developing players, the former Blades full-back has no qualms with the odd public dressing-down. He laid into Henderson after his gaffe against Liverpool – and then saw the on-loan goalkeeper turn in a man-of-the-match performance. His players say they would “run through brick walls for him” so what’s the secret? The trick, as it always has been for Wilder, is knowing what to say or do – cuddle, rollicking, crate of beer – and when.
“Dealing with the person, rather than the player is what you have to do, I think. It’s the message, it’s the timing and I try not to be predictable. I don’t feel there’s anything wrong with the truth and an honest approach. It’s what I wanted as a player. I’m the biggest supporter of this group but the biggest critic when I don’t think they’re doing what they can do or what they’ve done before. If they don’t react the right way, they don’t play. I’ve got respect for them and I’d like to think they’ve got respect for what I’m trying to do and achieve.”
He gives the example of Martin Crainie, a free, short-term signing who made only a handful of starts but led the promotion celebrations stripped to his waist and wearing a sombrero. “That’s the sort of inclusive group we have,” Wilder laughs. “It’s a really strong dressing room.”
He knows team spirit and mental toughness will be key during a season where a team used to winning must get used to defeat. The bookies made them odds-on favourites to go straight back down – Norwich, Watford and Newcastle are now deemed more likely after the Blades’ nine points from eight games – but while survival would be a remarkable achievement, the mentality of a “full-on” manager whose rare release comes on the golf course is the relentless pursuit of more.
“I want these players to keep pushing for more. Are we going to get in the top four? No. Top six? No. Are we likely to get in the top 10? No, but how close can we get to it? I always want more. I wanted a result against Liverpool. I wanted a result against Leicester. I wanted us to win at Watford because I thought we were good enough to, and when I look at the set-up and our attitude compared to theirs, I’m proud. Yes, we left ourselves a bit open and they’ve had some big opportunities but the general attitude – as it was against Liverpool – was not, let’s not sit back and wait to get beat.
“I want us to establish ourselves in the Premier League. Arsenal, Liverpool… I want these games to be regular fixtures. You might have seasons where you have a load of injuries, signings don’t work and it’s a struggle but I want us to keep moving forward, looking up.”
He admits he was “bluffing at times” when he said he did not covet the Blades job – “I was always going to take it if I was offered it” – and the lad who watched from the Kop before playing for the Dave Bassett side that won promotion to the top flight back in 1990 is relishing United’s superiority over Wednesday in a city that has always bristled with its famous football rivalry.
“I see more and more Sheffield United shirts around town. We’ve got a fantastic opportunity, if the club gets it right, to rule the city for the next twenty, thirty years.
“We want to dominate this city because that’s how we are – and the other lot are exactly the same. They might not say it – and they might say, ‘Oh, he’s talking about us again’ – but that’s how it is. We want to be an established Premier League club, we want to dominate the city, we want Sheffield United shirts all around, we want 30,000 at every game.”
Time will tell if his drive is matched – crucially, in practice – by the club’s new sole owner, Prince Abdullah. A recent High Court ruling found in favour of the Saudi over Sheffield-born Kevin McCabe after the co-owners’ relationship, struck to generate investment, soured spectacularly.
Wilder, for whom it is business as usual, hopes to add a couple to his ranks in January, wants to see new academy chief Jack Lester target category A status for a stable that produced the likes of Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker, and is pushing for improvements to a training ground he concedes is behind several in the Championship.
“The pace of us moving forwards is determined by a lot of factors off the pitch but am I driving what’s happening? 100 per cent. I have to be. Kit, coffee machine, training ground… I’m hands-on.
“The academy had stood still for a bit. Can we start producing young players with that Sheffield United mentality? Jack knows what makes the club tick. We need to establish ourselves in the Premier League before any extension happens at Bramall Lane – I love the ground; it’s a brilliant old ground with a modern feel – but if we want to attract players and give them the best preparation, we’ve got to keep up. The training ground is a working men’s club that’s been refurbished. I’ve been banging on about it for a while now.”
Prince Abdullah has spoken bullishly about his plans to turn the Blades into a “global brand with top-class facilities”. He even told a recent fans’ forum he wanted Wilder at the helm for “10, 15 years; Sheffield United’s Sir Alex Ferguson”. Can he see it?
“I don’t look too far into the future because I know what this industry’s like,” he smiles, “but I’m delighted at the path the club has been on. It’s been an amazing journey. Putting a spring back into people’s steps… it’s my club, I know how much it means. I want to keep moving forward. I want to establish myself at this level as much as the players want to do. There’ll be some bumps in the road but let’s keep pushing and see where it takes us…”