What went wrong for Chris Wilder at Middleborough?
Chris Wilder and Middlesbrough promised so much together, but in the end, delivered very little. The former Sheffield United boss was sacked this week with the club in the Championship relegation zone, after being named among the favourites for promotion this season. Now the club, once known for their chairman’s faith and understanding in managers, are looking for their fifth permanent appointment in as many years.
Whoever won the race for Wilder after he departed the Blades, his hometown club, were always going to be getting a very good coach. He had worked wonders at Bramall Lane, taking them from League One all the way to the Premier League, and to the brink of Europe in his first season. Relegation followed the next year, and Wilder was gone before the campaign ended. The verdict was that such a decision was incredibly harsh, but while there was a feeling that both Wilder and the club could benefit from going in different directions, that was no slight on his ability.
But despite an impressive FA Cup run last season, which showed what could have been achieved had things turned out differently, Wilder never got things going in 11 months at the Riverside Stadium. Rumours of a strained relationship with chairman Steve Gibson, a man famed for backing his managers were constantly there and provided a distraction, especially when talk of a move to Burnley following Sean Dyche’s sacking in the spring emerged. A similar pattern developed in recent weeks with the Bournemouth job; it will certainly be interesting to see whether he ends up on the South Coast in the coming weeks.
He certainly won’t be popular on Teesside, as the latest attempt to return the club to former glories falls flat. Boro have not been in the Premier League since 2017, and have just one pretty poor top flight campaign to their name since 2009, but there was a time when they were a mainstay in the division and making waves in Europe. That has felt like a different world, but nobody appeared better positioned to navigate the rigours of the Championship better than Wilder, and now it is back to the drawing board.
Finding a consistent identity has constantly proved difficult for the club since they were last relegated. Each of their permanent managers in that time – Garry Monk, Tony Pulis, Jonathan Woodgate, Neil Warnock and Wilder – has been a contradiction to their predecessor, with age and styles key points in terms of their differences. The cycle will begin again, too, with Rob Edwards and Carlos Corberan reportedly in the club’s sights.
But problems run deeper than that. One thing that all the recent men in the dugout have in common, even dating back to Aitor Karanka, who masterminded promotion six years ago and is the last man who could be called successful; complaints about recruitment. It started in the Premier League, when in January, with Boro holding their own, Karanka wanted to sign Jesé Rodriguez and Bojan Krkic on deadline day, but ended up with Adlene Guedioura from Wolves. It wasn’t enough to give Boro the spark they needed to drive towards survival, and Karanka’s demeanour in a post-match press conference following a 1-1 draw with West Brom said a lot for his mood.
By March Karanka was gone, and Boro won just once more before the end of the season. It was a painfully tame way to return to the Premier League after eight years away, and a lot of money has been spent in trying to rectify that campaign, most of it poorly. The problem is deeper than the management, which both offers some comfort for Wilder in his failings, and offers some context for the struggles of his successor.
Chief executive Neil Bausor has come in for a lot of criticism from the fanbase. While sympathy for Wilder is hard to find, mainly because things went south after the Burnley talk, but there is an understanding of the bigger problems at the club, which are holding them back from success.
Wilder remains a very good manager, and he will show why once again soon. But the lesson here is even a ‘perfect fit’ may not work out if the foundations aren’t seeing enough.