Earlier this week, after completing his research on today’s opponents, Chris Wilder watched a film about the late, great Brian Clough.
It was a labour of love because he idolises one of the sharpest, brightest and most successful characters ever to grace the English game. But, once the footage had finished and the credits had rolled, Sheffield United’s manager was overwhelmed with regret.
“Nobody will ever do what he did,” Wilder said. “It will never, ever, happen. What he achieved there was absolutely amazing and I think it’s a shame, a crying shame for the whole game in fact, that we’ll probably never see anything like that again.”
Wilder, whose United side host Forest at Bramall Lane this afternoon, was referring to Clough’s remarkable achievements with the visitors after being appointed over 43 years ago. Already a title winner with Derby County but still smarting following a chastening experience at Leeds, the former Middlesbrough and Sunderland centre-forward grabbed the City Ground by the scruff of the neck and delivered a promotion, a Championship and, most famously, two European Cups within five-and-a-half seasons.
“I watch documentaries,” Wilder said. “I love watching them about him. Obviously what Sir Alex Ferguson did at Manchester United was fantastic but, for me, taking an unfashionable team out of the Second Division and doing what he did, well, it really was something else. They were a provincial club and he went from Two to One and then onto the European Cup. Not just once but twice. How can you beat that? I’m not sure you can. I’m positive you can’t in fact.”
Wilder has no time for those who claim Clough would struggle to out-smart Mourinho or hoodwink Guardiola. Greats would be great in any era. Indeed, with United chasing a place in the top-flight themselves, he believes Clough’s methods remain required reading for everyone, himself included, attempting to buck the financial trend.
“They did that with a manager who was one of the greatest of all time and through recruitment and tactics,” Wilder said. “Those are skills that maybe are taken out of the equation by a chequebook. That was incredibly, what he did. It set them up for the next 30, 40 years of whatever. It’s always going to be a historic club now with what they did back then. I don’t think it will be done again unless someone comes in with ‘next level’ money. But you’d still be looking at a different situation.”
“I think it’s a shame for football,” he continued. “I don’t think anybody will do what Leicester City did again, coming from nowhere to win the Premier League, and even they didn’t go on to do what Forest did under Brian. Leicester had a perfect storm, with so many of the big powerhouses having seasons of change and turmoil. A few of them were completely out of the equation. I don’t think that will happen again. We talk about bridging the gap but that won’t happen again.”
United, seventh in the Championship table and only two points behind sixth, enter today’s game knowing a win could see them climb back into the play-off positions with only eight matches remaining. The fact they are nine places above Forest at this stage of the campaign confirms, according to Wilder, the progress his squad has made since being promoted last term.
“That’s how I see it,” he said. “This time last year, even the last day, there was Blackburn Rovers, Premier League winners, Birmingham City, a former Premier League team, Nottingham Forest, former European champions, all battling it out to stay in the Championship. So that and this season, it just shows you how competitive the division is.”
Wilder, a former United player and lifelong supporter, described the meeting with Aitor Karanka’s side as one of the highlights of the season during his media conference this week; citing factors including past encounters, politics and history.
“I know there’s rivalry between the two clubs,” he said. “I know that more than anybody. I’ve been involved in games with things on and off the pitch, without going deep into it there’s a political situation and the geography too. I think it’s a cracking game. If you look at the fixture list, outside of the real local derbies, this is right up there with the Villa game for me.”