Chris Wilder’s chaotic Sheffield United return looks doomed to end in failure

<span>Chris Wilder can’t bear to look as his team slip to defeat at Molineux.</span><span>Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images</span>
Chris Wilder can’t bear to look as his team slip to defeat at Molineux.Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

There was a time when Chris Wilder regularly joined family and friends in the bar of the four-star hotel adjacent to Bramall Lane for post-match drinks. As Sheffield United rose from League One to a ninth-placed Premier League finish and he was crowned the LMA manager of the year in 2019, those appearances seemed to epitomise a refreshing lack of pretension on the part of a coach sometimes spotted travelling to the training ground by bus.

Today that hotel is closed and in a state of disrepair, while Wilder has discovered that while success can be worn lightly, it is far harder to shoulder failure.

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After leaving Sheffield United by mutual consent in 2021, Wilder endured difficult stints in charge of Middlesbrough and Watford before being brought back to Bramall Lane by the club’s Saudi Arabian owner, Prince Abdullah. His homecoming has been tarnished by the reality that, barring a minor miracle, the club appears destined for a second relegation in four years.

Sheffield United host Arsenal on Monday night not merely adrift at the bottom of the table but having conceded 66 Premier League goals this season. That is close to three times the number Mikel Arteta’s title-chasing side have leaked (23) and constitutes the worst defensive record in Europe’s five leading leagues.

Not that Wilder or his predecessor, Paul Heckingbottom, should be attributed too much of the blame for a season undermined by the club’s financial challenges, with those problems exacerbated by Prince Abdullah’s ultimately forlorn, well-publicised but unsuccessful attempts to sell up last year.

Although the Blades swashbuckled their way to automatic promotion from the Championship, Heckingbottom lost a group of senior professionals, most notably his two best players, Norway’s Sander Berge and Senegal’s Iliman Ndiaye. That pair were in the final years of their contracts and, after failing to agree new deals, directors opted to sell them to Burnley and Marseille respectively for a combined total of about £32m.

Although 10 new signings were made, three on loan, for a collective £57m, they were largely young and inexperienced. “We lost seven of the squad that took us up,” Heckingbottom said recently. “The squad’s mentality became fragile.”

It did not help that John Egan, the team’s captain and defensive cornerstone, sustained a serious achilles injury in September. Egan was key to the system of overlapping central defenders who succeeded in bewildering some of the Premier League’s finest tactical minds during Wilder’s first managerial stint at Bramall Lane, but those days were a distant memory by the time Wilder returned.

Bar a recent win at their relegation rivals Luton, results have not picked up and the pressure seemed to turn Wilder uncharacteristically precious. After the 3-2 defeat at Crystal Palace he lambasted one of the assistant referees for having the temerity to be snacking when he visited the officials’ room after the match.

“One of his assistants was eating a sandwich at the time, which I thought was a complete lack of respect,” reflected Wilder, during a mini rant to reporters. “Hopefully he enjoyed his sandwich while he was talking to a Premier League manager.”

Those comments cost the 56-year-old an £11,500 Football Association fine; meanwhile, it was arguably lenient refereeing that meant two of his players, Jack Robinson and Vinícius Souza, escaped red cards in the wake of an unseemly onfield altercation during last Sunday’s 1-0 defeat at Wolves. The teammates swatted arms at each other on the edge of their own box before being separated but, after a video assistant referee review, it was concluded no violent conduct had taken place and the duo escaped dismissal.

“It made me laugh because the second story down after Jack and Vini on the Sky Sports website was two NHL ice hockey players absolutely smashing each other to bits,” said Wilder on Thursday. “Taking their gloves off and smashing each other to bits for 10 minutes.

“For me it’s not an issue as it got put to bed straight away. Over my career as a player and a manager there’ve been plenty of those situations. Obviously there’s the Premier League spotlight and it’s not a good image. I totally get that and it was too close for comfort but … it’s two boys who want to do well. These things happen, it gets put to bed and we move on.”

After four losses in the past five league games – including 5-0 home defeats to Brighton and Aston Villa – Wilder might be forgiven for wishing he was moving on to less challenging opposition than Arsenal. Not so. “Would you rather be playing a Monday-night Championship game or against world-class players and a team that’s absolutely flying in a front of a worldwide television audience?” he said.

“I know where I’d rather be and I’m sure the players will have that same attitude. But there’s no free hit for us. We have to produce a performance that our supporters are proud of. We haven’t had enough of those this season. Arsenal are favourites but we have to show we’re capable of being competitive.”