The party that followed Sheffield United’s promotion to the Premier League was a big one. An open-top bus weaving through the streets of the Steel City, confetti fluttering in the wind, flares blasting thick red smoke into the air, with thousands of gleeful Blades fans paying homage to the team and coach who brought the good times back to Bramall Lane. It was the stuff of dreams for someone who grew up supporting and loving Sheffield United, the stuff of dreams for someone exactly like manager Chris Wilder.
You could forgive Wilder for pinching himself. When he took over in 2016 the club were at a low, mired in the middle-reaches of League One, but that changed in a flash, as Wilder guided the Blades to a 100-point title-winning season, before ultimately earning automatic promotion from the Championship last season.
Wilder grew up supporting Sheffield United and had two separate spells at Bramall Lane during his playing career. The chance to manage the club would have been a dream come true for the Stocksbridge native, but even he could not have predicted the success that would follow.
It is not even the fact that Sheffield United have excelled under Wilder, it is how they have done it – playing swift, attractive football, building a spirited, gutsy team that Blades fans can be proud to support. He vanquished the doom and gloom that had pervaded the club and its supporters before his arrival, as they suffered in League One or at the wrong end of the Championship while rivals Sheffield Wednesday vied for promotion every year.
The turnaround is one that owes a great deal to Wilder’s principles. He values the idea of creating a strong, committed unit, with each player pushing in the same collective direction. He cares little for airs and graces, favouring the kind of battle-hardened, wily characters that have played starring roles in Sheffield United’s rise to the Premier League – the likes of Billy Sharp, Leon Clarke and Chris Basham.
But Wilder does not consider himself old fashioned, rather his philosophy is to meld the traditional intrinsic qualities of English coaching with a modern, attacking style of play. “From my point of view it’s more about what is tried and trusted than what is old school,” he said in an interview with Sky Sports. “The game doesn’t really change, it just goes round in cycles. My staff and I try to keep a good balance with video analysis, sports science and conditioning, but at the same time you’ve got to be able to run around and compete.”
In many ways, it’s refreshing to see a coach seeking to bring English football’s well-worn coaching values into the 21st century without sacrificing the grit and graft that define those principles. It would be wrong to label Wilder a revolutionary, but he is someone constantly seeking improvement, to find that extra ten per cent that might give his side an edge. The beliefs he has held fast to since his earliest coaching days are still there for all to see.
Wilder’s coaching career has been one of ups and downs, on the pitch and off it. He began by coaching at Sunday League level, before spells at Alfreton Town and Halifax Town in non-league football helped him make a name for himself. He took charge of Oxford United in December 2008 and ultimately guided the club to promotion to the Football League. At Northampton Town, he successfully saved the side from relegation to the conference, before leading the Cobblers to the League Two title two years later.
Wilder’s golden touch has continued since he took the reins at Sheffield United, overseeing the club’s ascension back up the league ladder. Now is the time for the 51-year-old to prove that he has what it takes at Premier League level. The Blades have made a solid start, with a creditable 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge, having trailed by two, the perfect example of the steel and heart he has instilled in his team. While odds on Premier League may be tipping Sheffield United for relegation, Wilder’s success goes to show that doubters are there to be proved wrong.
Despite all his success, he is a manager who keeps his feet firmly on the ground. There is no fawning over past achievements. For Wilder, what’s done is done, the next challenge is the only one that matters. “You can’t sit back, rest on laurels and think about the past – what the journey has been,” he told the Telegraph before the season began. Wilder’s journey to this point has been a remarkable one, but he won’t be giving in to dewy-eyed dwellings on past achievements. He is, and always has been, looking only forward.