Chris Wilder tells Sky Sports about unearthing gems in the lower leagues, taking a data-driven approach to transfers, and placing personality alongside ability when hunting for new recruits
Friday 12 June 2020 08:30, UK
Next month will mark the fourth anniversary of Chris Wilder's appointment as Sheffield United manager. A journey which began with defeats by Bolton and Southend either side of a draw with Rochdale in League One has taken the Blades to unthinkable new heights.
On a budget dwarfed by those of their rivals, and with a squad dominated by players who have been with Wilder from the start, Sheffield United lie seventh in the Premier League. They have taken more points than Tottenham and Arsenal and conceded fewer goals than Manchester City. Win their game in hand when football returns and they could go fifth.
It is a story of smart management and fearless ambition, of perseverance and no shortage of skill. But of all the factors which have contributed to their success, shrewd player recruitment is perhaps the most significant.
Over the course of four seasons, Wilder and his staff have built a squad capable of fighting its way to the top and then staying there. They have tapped into unfulfilled potential, unearthed gems in unlikely places, and eked the absolute maximum out of the resources at their disposal.
It can be seen in John Fleck, Chris Basham and Jack O'Connell, three of their strongest performers in the Premier League this season, all of whom arrived at the club at the start of Wilder's first year in charge. From John Lundstram and Enda Stevens to Oliver Norwood and John Egan, there have been many more success stories along the way.
"When I took the job, it was well-documented that we had been in League One for six long years," Wilder tells Sky Sports. "It seemed like an eternity. I imagine most United fans felt we were going to be stuck there for life.
"So, the biggest thing was to get out of that division. What did we need in order to do that? First and foremost, we needed players who knew the division. It was no good signing Premier League players. We needed players who knew how to win on a cold Tuesday night at some of the less glamorous clubs that we were playing against at the time.
"What's been key in every deal we have done is knowing what players will bring to the club from a mentality point of view as well as a technical and tactical point of view. Strong characters, strong personalities, good people. We are in a situation now where all of those boxes have been ticked, but it started down in League One."
The spirit and togetherness in the squad has been apparent on the pitch all season. It also shone through in this week's decision to accept a partial pay deferral during the coronavirus pandemic. But Wilder's boys can play too. Together with Paul Mitchell, his trusted head of recruitment, he has assembled a side which has produced some of the slickest and most tactically innovative football in the Premier League this season.
It's little wonder, then, that Wilder is still looking in the lower leagues for new recruits.
Among last year's signings were Oliver McBurnie, who had made a name for himself in the second tier with Barnsley and Swansea, and Callum Robinson, who had spent three seasons with Preston North End having risen through the youth ranks at Aston Villa. This summer, there are likely to be more new arrivals from the Championship and below.
"When we were initially signing players out of League One and League Two, it was to get us out of there," says Wilder. "But we were always hopeful and confident that those players would be able to move forward in the Championship and be successful at that level.
"Because of the speed of the journey, we didn't know for sure whether the likes of Fleck, Basham and other players who played with us in League One would be able to handle the Premier League. But they deserved the opportunity after the performances they produced in the Championship and they have proved themselves again.
"There is no reason why players out of League One and the Championship can't go on to have very, very successful careers higher up the ladder. I've got so much respect for what Jamie Vardy has done. We've seen him go from Stocksbridge Park Steels, where everybody had a look at him, to playing in the Premier League and for his country.
"There are loads more examples, Harry Maguire being another one.
"He played for us in League One and now he's playing for Manchester United with an £80m price-tag on his head. This is a lad who comes from Mosborough. But these boys have to start somewhere. I have an awful lot of respect players who go through that kind of journey."
Sheffield United are now able to cast their net wider in the transfer market at the same time as looking in the lower leagues. But their resources are still comparatively limited. While Premier League rivals boast far-reaching scouting networks, the Blades have their own way of doing things.
"We have to be smart," says Wilder. "In League One, we were a strong club financially, but in the Championship, we weren't as strong, and when you now look at the wealth and investment behind the clubs in the Premier League, us and Norwich are cast adrift by quite a long way
"We do look for players globally now, but the recruitment set-up hasn't actually changed since I started here, would you believe it? There was a lot of money going down the drain previously by us having scouts in Ireland and all over the place. We trimmed all that back and we now go about it in a little bit of a different way.
"I'll not give too much away about how we do it, but we use statistics and we've got out own methodology in terms of how we look at players.
We go about it in a little bit of a different way. We've designed our own system and it works for us
"We now have two or three more boys working full-time with Paul Mitchell in that department and an awful lot of watching games going on behind it, but we've not put scouts in every country. We do a lot of video analysis work. We've designed our own system and it works for us."
Sheffield United are one of a number of top-level clubs who work with football data intelligence providers SciSports to identify potential signings. But they are also helped by their own reputation for player development and a strong understanding of the human aspects of recruitment.
"We've obviously got a really good reputation as a football club and our relationships with agents, who have a big say in recruitment now, are healthy," says Wilder. "We understand the role that they play and I think they recognise that we are good guys. We go about things the right way. To send their players to us is now an attractive proposition."
Those factors all came together for the £22m signing of Sander Berge from Genk in January.
Berge, a coveted Norway international who has played at Champions League level, had rejected a move to Bramall Lane in the summer but was convinced to join Wilder's side having watched them prove their Premier League credentials in the first half of the season. Sheffield United's interest, however, dated back even further than that.
"We had been interested in Sander for a long time, long time," says Wilder. "We'd known about him for three or four years, when he was playing back home in Norway, before he moved to Belgium. There is no lazy recruitment from our point of view. We have to be smart and identify players early.
"We made an enquiry in the summer and, being a newly-promoted side at the time, it was a very ambitious move for us. Sander was looking at it and, quite rightly, didn't feel it was the right move for him at the time.
"We have had to prove ourselves as a football club. Myself and my staff have had to prove that we are good enough to be in this division and obviously we have done that with our performances and results. Then, in the position we are in and with the media coverage the Premier League gets, people start to take an interest in us a little more.
"They do a little bit of homework, they do a little bit of digging about us, and they see that the reputation of the club is rising.
"So, at the point when we enquired about Sander for a second time, the landscape had changed from us being a newly-promoted side that everyone thought would struggle - we were tipped to finish below Norwich, remember - to now being one which has got a foothold in the division and had a really good season."
The lockdown has stalled Sheffield United's progress for now. But there is no let-up for Wilder and his staff. They are busy assessing their work so far and formulating plans for the summer and beyond.
"We're in touch with every department and the staff are working just as hard as they do when they are at the football club," says Wilder.
"It's about reflection on the work we've done, in all aspects of the game, and looking at where we can bridge the gap because that's always what we're trying to do," he says. "We can't bridge it financially and we totally understand that. We have to bridge it in other ways.
"We have to find small wins. What goes out on the training ground? What goes out to the players in terms of video analysis? Obviously, it's a difficult time for the players because they are isolated at home and there is only so much work they can do, but there is the physical side of it as well."
Wilder's sights are now set higher than ever before. Sheffield United's remarkable season could yet end in Champions League qualification and the Berge deal underlines just how far the club has come. But there will be no departure from the principles that got them here.
"We're talking about signing players, again, from a mentality point of view," says Wilder. "This is the Premier League, not League One, but we still want strong characters. Players who want to prove themselves. Players who want to achieve and want to get to the top of the mountain.
"From a recruitment point of view, we are looking at our options and, in some cases, that still means players who have done very, very well in League Two, League One and the Championship who might be of interest to us in the summer. We're looking at position-specifics to see if these players fit our model. We don't want to waste any time."
Under Chris Wilder, there seems little prospect of that happening.