How Chris Wilder masterminded Sheffield United fairytale
Blades back in Premier League after 12-year exile to complete remarkable rise under boyhood fan
By Kate Burlaga
Last Updated: 30/04/19 6:21pm
Sheffield United are back in the big time after 12 years away and the man who led them there has the Blades in the blood. Chris Wilder has done it with shrewd signings, a system described as "organised chaos" and, above all, an unshakeable spirit.
After a dizzying Championship promotion race took another sharp turn and his Sheffield United side had slipped up deep into stoppage-time, Chris Wilder had one of his commonplace catch-ups with legendary Blades boss Dave Bassett. Bassett, whose class of 1990 had reached the top flight after its own fierce race with Leeds, was his usual, priceless sounding-board and a buoyed Wilder delivered a public pep talk."I get that some of our supporters think we're done - but the players aren't done and I'm not done."
They weren't. On an Easter weekend that would prove pivotal, Wilder's side, leggy and nervy against Millwall, roared back with successive wins as Marcelo Bielsa's men wilted. A fanbase haunted by late collapses, controversial relegations and play-off failures could have been forgiven for fearing the worst. But this time, under this manager, it has been different.
After 12 years, years that have stung and bruised in the red half of a famous footballing city, the Blades are back. And the man who masterminded their return, from the pits of League One to the Premier League in just 32 months, is one of their own. It is some story.
"He is the best manager in the club's history," said captain Billy Sharp of Wilder - one boyhood Blade to another - as the champagne sprayed on a decisive Sunday. "The gaffer's driven us on every single day. It's incredible what he has done."
Some managers might have thought 'let's consolidate' but not Chris. They've continued to strengthen. They've been consistent. They've not overreacted to setbacks. I've seen Chris mature through his experiences. I couldn't be more pleased for him.
Dave Bassett on Chris Wilder
Bassett tracked the career of the former player and ballboy who has joined him in the Blades pantheon and, like others who knew of his dedicated, hands-dirty work right through the pyramid from Sunday league, suspected he would finally be the one to succeed where a string of others had failed. But the transformation has come at spectacular speed.
Twelve months after a lowest finish for 33 years under Nigel Adkins, Wilder's Blades were romping to the League One title, not slacking when the partying gathered pace to reach a club-record 100 points. Inside four months, they were top of the Championship. Injuries hit and, squad depth exposed, they fell away, but the play-offs remained in reach until the penultimate day.
Anyone suspecting second-season syndrome was wildly off-target. Close-season links with Sunderland were fleeting, Wilder's call for clarity around an ownership battle that is still ongoing proving strategic. There were successive defeats at the start of the season as new signings bedded in, but back-to-back losses never followed. The Blades were back at the summit in October and this time have lasted the pace. "We set it up at Christmas and have steamrollered it," said Wilder. He is right. They have been the division's form side since the turn of the year.
Their front-foot approach has continued largely unchecked yet has been supplemented with defensive steel and a streetwise streak. They have forced the most corners and made more passes in the opposition half than any side in the Championship. They have been more miserly than Tony Pulis's Middlesbrough with a league-high 21 clean sheets. They have led for the most minutes (1,540) and trailed for the fewest (338). They have been, as Wilder always demands, relentless.
"They play a unique style that I really enjoy watching," said Bristol City's Lee Johnson after helping Wilder to the peer-voted Championship manager of the year award. "You've got these sexy names and foreign flair… but he's had to do it the hard way."
The hard way has been hard graft and sleepless nights at clubs where livelihoods were at stake. Wilder laughed in a Sky Sports interview as he recalled picking his Sunday league side in a nightclub but at the likes of Halifax and Northampton there have been graver challenges: wages unpaid, winding-up orders and liquidation threats. "I've had to fight for it all and so have the boys," he said, thinking no doubt of Mark Duffy, the one-time scaffolder released by Liverpool, or David McGoldrick, the veteran forward whose free signing would prove a masterstroke.
A proud path from non-league has reached the Premier League. Supporters long disenchanted are savouring a special connection. The patient climb of a British manager who has breathed life back into his hometown club is a feelgood story for far beyond Bramall Lane.
Five top Blades stats (@Blades_analytic)
- Chris Basham has created more chances (29) than any other centre-back in the league.
- Sheff Utd have not lost against any of the Championship's current bottom-half sides.
- The Blades have amassed 2.2 points per game in 2019, conceding just 11 goals.
- Chris Wilder has a 54% win rate as Blades boss - the highest of any permanent manager in the club's history.
- Wilder's side have lost just one of the last 17 games. Leeds have lost six in that time.
In the heart of the city, they have relished Wilder's way. "My players have to be competitors before footballers. They don't pull out of tackles in training. It's full-tilt and if we pick up injuries, we pick up injuries. They have to give everything on the pitch and leave it all out there."
He ripped down handfuls of motivational notes after taking over from Adkins, simplifying the message. Win tackles, win headers, win races. Out-run, out-fight, out-think, out-play.
But there is far more to the man and his methods than just sweating for the shirt. "He's got the desire, the passion and the brains," Blades recruitment chief Paul Mitchell said recently. "He's the whole package. And he's 24/7 - football-daft."
Wilder's United might represent "the best of working-class principles" but his playbook has been anything but prosaic. The most striking feature of a 3-5-2 formation typically defensive but here, swaggeringly offensive, is overlapping, outlying centre-backs, helping to create overloads in wide areas. Wing-backs raid like wingers. The play is usually short and patient, prizing cut-backs and high-quality chances. And Sharp is usually in the six-yard box, waiting to pounce.
Sky Sports pundit Danny Higginbotham describes the style, honed by Wilder's unassuming longtime assistant Alan Knill, as "organised chaos". Bielsa declared it worthy of study earlier this season. Whatever the verdict, the answer has been elusive for most opponents and the continuity - they have started every game since their return to the Championship with a back three - key.
While heavyweight sides have gambled, Wilder has eked the maximum from a bottom-third budget to this time ride the challenges of a gruelling season. Manchester United goalkeeper Dean Henderson, no-fuss defender John Egan and dead-ball specialist Oliver Norwood have proved value upgrades down the spine. Scott Hogan, Gary Madine and Kieran Dowell were canny attacking additions in January, while Martin Crainie and 15-goal McGoldrick have been inspired free transfers.
Six key games
- Sheff Utd 4-1 Aston Villa (Sep 2018): Swashbuckling attacking display and a statement of intent
- Sheff Utd 3-1 Derby (Dec 2018): Stirring second-half rally and a big psychological boost after victory against a top-six rival
- Aston Villa 3-3 Sheff Utd (Feb 2019): Three-nil up into the final 10 minutes - but after a dramatic collapse came seven clean sheets
- West Brom 0-1 Sheff Utd (Feb 2019): Big win on the road at a promotion rival, where loanee Kieran Dowell was the difference
- Sheff Utd 2-0 Brentford (Mar 2019): Mammoth defensive display after Gary Madine was dismissed in the first half
- Leeds 0-1 Sheff Utd (Mar 2019): Under the cosh for long spells but ultimately triumphant against closest rivals
Players with apparent limitations have reached new heights in the Blades' unorthodox system. Roving centre-back Chris Basham has revelled in a fresh sense of purpose, while Sharp - a driving force in the group, according to Wilder - has elevated his game, running channels and linking play as well as plundering 24 goals. He became the leading goalscorer in English league football this century back in January and Wilder is adamant he does not get enough credit.
It is a squad which has uniquely been assembled from Britain and Ireland but not, Wilder and his staff insist, by design. There are tentative steps into foreign markets and top-flight experience will be needed - just two players from their last starting line-up have played there - but their recruitment strategy is unlikely to change, fit and character overriding requirements.
A big summer awaits, the ownership battle between co-owners Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia set for the High Court next month, and while Wilder is already relishing trips to Old Trafford and Anfield, he has warned the club "needs to sort out the off-the-pitch stuff".
Talk of next season on the pitch can wait but Wilder is not done - he is never done - with this stellar campaign. His side could yet win the title at Stoke on the final day if Norwich slip up against Aston Villa. "We still have a game to play but we're going to try and win the Championship. That's how our mindset is. Who says we can't." With Wilder at the Bramall Lane helm, anything has felt - and proved - possible.