(Picture: Action Images)
By Chris Dunlavy
SHORTLY before crashing out of the Championship in May 2011, Sheffield United released a damning annual report.
“We have thrown money at too many players,” concluded chairman Kevin McCabe. “It is an approach that does not work for Sheffield United.”
Five years on, it is a mistake Chris Wilder is not about to repeat. Like all Blades fans – and there aren’t many more passionate than him – the 49-year-old had watched in dismay as McCabe’s generous but flawed strategy dragged United to the brink of collapse.
The millions blown on big-name has-beens. The doomed scramble to escape League One whilst trying to repair a ruined balance sheet. The stream of substandard players unable to cope with the demands of 20,000 frustrated Blades.
So when Wilder, fresh from winning the League Two title with Northampton, was asked to rescue his boyhood club in May, he knew exactly what was required.
“My family are all season ticket holders,” says the former Oxford boss, who spent seven years at Bramall Lane as a tough-tackling full-back.
“We’d get together, talk about the game. It gave me an insight into where the club was headed and what was needed. The big thing was a connection to the supporters. That’s what had been lost over the years.
“If you look at the successful periods the club has had, there are common factors. We’ve always been competitive. We’ve always been on the front foot, not so much emphasis on possession and build-up. We’d always got after teams.
“They want to see you run around. They want to see you battle. Sometimes a big header or a crunching tackle or chasing a lost cause gets more appreciation than 20 successful passes or a Cruyff turn. That’s the DNA of this place.
“Managers come in with different ideas and I’d never want to be disrespectful to anyone who had the job here before me. But the fear of coming to Bramall Lane was a lot less than it should have been.”
The results have been spectacular. Banishing a rocky, defeat-strewn August, the Blades had taken 23 points from a possible 27 to sit fourth in League One heading into the weekend. Last Tuesday’s 3-0 victory at Shrewsbury was their second demolition job in the space of four days, following a 4-0 home romp against Port Vale.
And as a late leveller against a combative Fleetwood side demonstrated, the men from the Steel City are finally showing the kind of mettle their fans demand.
For Wilder, a key component of the turnaround was shunning the kind of big-name stars who so nearly crippled the club in favour of lesser lights prepared to graft.
Twenty players were ushered out in the summer, their replacements men like Jake Wright and Mark Duffy, whose CVs include the likes of Prescot Cables and Halifax Town.
“I can’t lie,” he explains. “The budget has been cut. It’s still very healthy and one that should give us a good chance of getting out of the division, but we’re in a different market now. Nevertheless, I don’t think it would have altered my thinking.
“When Premier League players drop into the Championship, they’re still going to places like Sheffield Wednesday, Fulham and other very nice grounds.
“But when Championship players drop into League One, all of a sudden they’re playing up north on a Tuesday night and it’s a very different experience. It’s not about ability. It’s about attitude. It was about getting players who could cope with that.
“In the past, other managers maybe went for experienced Championship or Premier League players. We wanted lads with a track record of success in this division.
“The flip side is that we’ve got some players who aren’t used to playing in front of 20,000 every week but they are getting there.”
Expectations, always rampant at Bramall Lane, are currently running riot. For the first time since 2012, belief has replaced hope that United will finally end their five-year exile from the Championship.
It is a feeling Wilder knows well from his days at Oxford United, a big fish who floundered in the Conference until he hooked them out in May 2010.
“None of the big-hitters really got out of that division,” he recalls. “It was always teams like Accrington and Burton and Stevenage. Pressure was heaped on the big ex-Football League sides. You were always the scalp.
“You had to contend with that and the players here have got to contend with that. You have to turn up week in, week out. You can’t get away from it – you have to embrace it.
“This is the fifth or sixth biggest city in England and I’ve got the pressure of knowing half of it is demanding I get promoted.
“But that’s better than managing a club nobody cares about. The owners deserve a bit of a break and a bit of success. The fans deserve to get out of this division. And Wednesday aren’t coming down, so if we want a derby we’ve got to do the business!
“We’re in a good place at the moment and there’ll be some bumps in the road. But we’ll keep the hammer down to get this fabulous club back where it should be.”
*This article originally featured in The FLP on Sunday, 23rd October.