Sheffield United are cruising towards the Championship, and it is one of their own who is taking them there. Chris Wilder grew up just a couple of miles from Bramall Lane, in the foothills of the mills where his grandfather once toiled for a living. Now, as the manager of the club he supports, he is steeling his players for the eight games that will make or break their promotion challenge.
Four matches into the season, United were bottom of the League One table, their worst start in more than two decades. But tomorrow afternoon they go to Boundary Park to play Oldham six points clear at the top. Yet Wilder is stubbornly refusing to get carried away. “We’ve got to keep our feet on the ground,” he insists. “We weren’t too down after four games, and we’re not too up after 38.”
Instead, Wilder will let the fans do his dreaming for him. There was a time when he stood among them: a Sheffield boy like any other, steel and football running through his bloodstream. These were the 1970s and 1980s, tough times for the city and the club. Outside the stadium, the mills were closing and the outlook was bleak. Inside, the club were sliding gracefully down the divisions.
“It wasn’t a great period for the football club,” Wilder remembers. “They were in the old Fourth Division at one point. I took a bit of stick at school. There weren’t a lot of United fans there. But it’s a fabulous club.”
These days, however, it is all business, and at times a brutal business.
Wilder has been in management for 15 years, working his way up from Alfreton Town in the ninth tier of English football, and he knows better than most how this game consumes you. “It’s on your mind, 24/7,” he says. “You struggle to forget and unwind. The rare times that you pull away from it, it quickly pulls back.”
Even as we speak, Wilder is still plotting, still thinking. He is planning a trip to Rochdale in the evening to watch Millwall, who they face on Tuesday night. “I don’t understand players who don’t take an interest in the game,” he says. “Who can’t watch it on TV. I’ll watch any type of football. Sunday League or Premier League.”
For all his ardour, Wilder is not one of the Football League’s big beasts.
You are not likely to see his name thrown around for any of the vacancies that have recently opened up in the Championship. Indeed, he has never managed in the top two divisions. But over a decade and a half he has quietly forged a reputation for extreme competence: not showy, not eye-catching, but a man who will generally leave a club in a better state than the one in which he found it.
Sheffield United, who had been gently drifting for nearly a decade, are just finding that out. Wilder is an expert at getting to the heart of a club and deducing exactly what needs to be done, and after arriving in the summer he soon realised the problem: United’s squad needed a purge. Almost two dozen players were shipped out.
“You have to lead,” Wilder explains. “The early days are important. There’s your opportunity, as soon as you walk in, to stamp your mark on the club. Some, hopefully, will be with you. Some people will want to go in their own direction, and they fall by the wayside.”
Not every club Wilder has worked at has been fixed quite so easily. He was at Halifax Town when they slid towards extinction in 2008. Then, last season at Northampton, the council tried to get the club put into administration in order to recover a £10million loan. Chaos reigned. Wilder, like everyone else at the club, went months without pay.
“They’re the experiences you learn from,” he says now. “You’ve got two choices. You can use it as an excuse and down tools. Or you can keep going. And that’s what we did.”
Four months after staring liquidation in the face, Wilder took Northampton out of League Two as champions. Now, he is on the verge of a similar feat with Sheffield United. They are League One’s top scorers and its outstanding side, but Wilder knows better than to take anything for granted. “I still don’t think we’ve cracked it,” he says. “This is a brand new team, and we want to keep improving it. I’ve been in it long enough to know that it’s a tough business. There’s a lot of things that can go against you.”
Then he excuses himself, because he is determined that Millwall on Tuesday night will not be one of them.