Chris Wilder deserved better from Sheffield United
Before and after, there was anger. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the relationship between Sheffield United fans and players bordered on hatred in 2016 and it took Chris Wilder, a pub-going Blades fan himself, to reconnect both sides.
His arrival as manager did more than just trigger the end to a five-year stay in League One, it saw a rapid rise back to the Premier League. It is understandable, then, that the level of negative feeling from a fanbase powerless to stop a disastrous deflation of momentum while locked out of Bramall Lane over the past year, is directly correlative to the impact Wilder had in the dugout. This time, though, emotions aren’t aimed at the pitch, but the boardroom.
It was the cliched dream for any supporter, having one of their own in charge of the team they loved but Wilder went beyond standing on the terraces as a child. He was relatable because he could be found doing exactly what anybody who loved the club was in his down time, sitting around a table with friends over some drinks and chewing the fat over matches. That was the way before he took the job, while he was in charge of Oxford United or Northampton Town; it will almost certainly be the way in the future.
From the outside, Sheffield United decising to allow Chris Wilder to leave by mutual consent makes no sense. He was the beating heart of the club and their development was so intrinsically linked to his approach from a tactical, mental and characteristic standpoint. It is rare to see such a level of control and influence in modern management but he had that to the point that it is now difficult to envisage his replacement.
Until the end of the season, that man is academy coach Paul Heckingbottom, who will be supported by ex-Bournemouth boss Jason Tindall, who ultimately failed in a similar situation at the Vitality Stadium, following Eddie Howe. As his assistant, it felt like a continuation than a fresh start, but he was sacked earlier this season.
As it turns out, though, control may have been his downfall. When Chris Wilder came in, Sheffield United were in the midst of a fight for the ownership between Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, which was only settled in favour of the latter last season. Wilder’s desire to oversee everything has seen friction develop into cracks in the relationships, which have now turned fatal. As great a job as he did at the club and however lucky his next one will be to have him, he is unlikely to enjoy such dominance in the role.
His case for remaining in such a position of power also became more difficult to argue as the Blades flirted with a record-breaking low points tally in the Premier League this season. Relegation has been a forgone conclusion for a while and of the four big-money signings made since promotion — Oli McBurnie, Lys Mousset, Sander Berge and Rhian Brewster — only the Belgian midfielder can be called a qualitative success. Could he be trusted to spend again in the future at a crucial juncture?
Results dictate the future of any manager. If Chris Wilder can be edged out of Sheffield United in this fashion, then it can happen to anybody. Overachievement had been the best way to sum up his reign, so much so that a dose of realism this season has been scrutinised as a disaster. While the club have spent money beyond their previous means, their squad was always lacking in proven quality in the top flight; Wilder’s fabled ‘overlapping centre halves’ tactic caught many pundits and opponents off guard last season, and they were roared on by a raucous home crowd relishing a Premier League return. Without that backing — due to coronavirus — and the element of surprise, their second season quickly panned out as many thought the first one would.
When Wilder waved to the Kop end at Bramall Lane after a victory over Norwich City back in March last year, this entire situation was a world away. He was leading an unlikely push for Europe, but a week later, football was in lockdown and when it returned, everything was different, not least the outlook for Sheffield United. Their first game back, in June at Aston Villa, saw a goal-line technology malfunction cost them victory, and they followed that up with a heavy defeat at Newcastle United. Recovery from there has been difficult.
No club has felt the void without fans quite like Sheffield United and the rapport of Chris Wilder with his people is a huge reason for that. Now they are a ship without a captain, unlikely to make the pain of an inevitable relegation any less jarring in the final few weeks of the season before a true rebuild began in the summer. It felt like they were primed for the same tweaking Burnley and Norwich both received back in the Championship under Sean Dyche and Daniel Farke. The bulk of their squad looked set to stay under Wilder; it was built in his image after all. Now all bets are off.
Whomever hires him next will be getting a top quality coach and, while he may have to tailor his demands, he will likely thrive again. Sheffield United will miss Chris Wilder and they will come off worse after a great love affair turned sour. Their long road back just got that bit more treacherous.
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