Tomorrow, three months after being appointed, Chris Wilder oversees his first competitive fixture as Sheffield United manager.
The former Halifax, Oxford and Northampton Town chief, who won promotion from League Two at Sixfields last term, is a lifelong United supporter and enjoyed two spells at Bramall Lane as a player. Speaking ahead of the visit to Bolton Wanderers, Wilder discusses his new assignment with The Star’s James Shield and assistant manager Alan Knill.
James Shield: What was your first thought when you heard Sheffield United wanted you?
Chris Wilder: You hear a lot of players and a lot of managers talking about ‘no-brainers’ but it was the ultimate no-brainer for me. I’d been linked with the job a few times but, when it really did look as if it might happen, I dropped everything else. It was a mad season, with the stuff that happened at Northampton, and then the interest at the end of it. The timing was right and the fit too. Being in the job for eight to 10 weeks, I think even more so that it’s right for both myself and the club.
JS: You turned down other clubs before coming here though, didn’t you?
CW: There was interest from elsewhere. I think the time was right to go on, with all respect, to a bigger club. Football and management is all about timing. Some things you miss. On other occasions, everything comes together at the right time. It was always in my head what I might say about coming here if I was asked. But it was never an obsession. If you ask the people close to me, they’ll say I’ve always been more of a mind whereby, if I try to be the best I can, then there’s a chance it might happen at some point.
Alan Knill: Sheffield United, as a club, is just something else. Just look at the number of fans, around 4,000, that will be at Bolton. That’s just ridiculous. But I mean that in a good way.
CW: This is a fantastic club. Even more so, being inside it again. I recognised that when I played here. It’s a special club and I had some special times. Maybe not so much the second time, that was more heart over head, but being on the inside again this is a special club with a special feeling and special people.
JS: How does your relationship work and why?
AK: Both of us like and enjoy what we do and the roles we have. We’re comfortable in them. And because I’ve been a manager before, I understand the pressures Chris has. There’s a trust there and that’s good. I think having that insight, that empathy, helps.
JS: Sum-up your footballing philosophy, for want of a better word.
CW: Honesty, togetherness in everything we do. Commitment added with organisation, work ethic and of course ability. Wanting a team to play but also be tough, streetwise, playing proper mens’ football and effective football. People can talk about breaking low blocks and playing between the lines. But, really, I think it all boils down to those things. The biggest, though, is just having an unbelievable desire to win. At any level, in any competition, at anything you do.
AK: This is one of the reasons I think Chris and I work well together. I’m ‘football, football, football’ and he likes something more productive. Chris is more about the result. So it’s a good curb. I’ve learned a lot during our time together.
JS: What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced here so far?
CW: The hardest part was trying to turnover the squad as quickly as possible. Getting the right players is always difficult, a tough process, but we’ve done that I think. And, I must say this, we’ve had the backing of the owners too. I’m not a*********g when I say that. I honestly believe, without sounding like I’m buying time, that we’ll improve as the season goes on. It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.
AK: Because we want to play differently to the last manager and the one before that, it’s been getting that message across and getting the lads used to it. The different methods, different tactics and different demands.
JS: What do you demand of your players?
CW: There’s a way we want to play. We recognise some players can’t do it and some probably don’t want to do it. But we are committed to those contracts. We didn’t expect every player we transfer listed would go out of the building and some of them have changed our opinion on them, yes. That changeover, from players you have to the players you want, is the hardest. Always. People like Billy, Doney, Basham, Scouggs and Brayford have really bought in. But some can’t. You need to move on the ‘can’t do it’ and the ‘won’t do it’ ones.
AK: From my perspective, it’s enthusiasm. Every single day in training. Enthusiasm and hard work.
CW: The board has spent a lot on previous contracts. They’ve put a lot in and not always got much for it. I genuinely look at that and want to give them something. I’m not protecting my job but I’d genuinely like to give the owners that.
JS: Is being the biggest club in the division a help or a hindrance?
CW: It should be a help but I can understand why it can be a hindrance. But I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. We have expectations ourselves to win anyway. It’s how you embrace it. People talk about there being 20,000 potentially having a go. Well, look at it the other way, there might be 20,000 willing you on. I don’t want arrogant players, I don’t want billy big time players. I want confident players. Physically confident ones too. There’s no way we’ll get bullied next year and, if we do, then things have to change.
JS: Why is League One so tough to get out of?
CW: Successful teams need to do a lot of things right. Tactically, recruitment-wise, mentally and physically. It’s not just about signing players on expensive wages. They’ve got to have those qualities. So, basically, other than when Danny was here, the club hasn’t done enough of those things right at the same time.
AK: I managed a team, Scunthorpe, that had come down into League One and it’s hard because there’s always a rebuild involved. There’s lots of players who have been in the division a while and know it inside out which leads to lots of evenly matched teams. And, schedule-wise, it’s a grind.
JS: What did you learn from your time at Northampton Town?
CW: Stick to your principles, be honest, and surround yourself with good people. Staff and players. The players there were good people. That’s a principle here too. My principles haven’t shifted since I went into management and they won’t change either. And nobody survives if they are on a different agenda. Nobody.