Back where we belong

By: League Managers Association

Winning the League Two and League One titles in consecutive seasons with different clubs is quite an achievement, but Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder isn’t prepared to rest on his laurels.

The last two seasons have been quite a rollercoaster ride for Chris Wilder. After winning the Sky Bet League Two title in 2016 with Northampton Town and receiving the division’s Manager of the Year award, he moved to his boyhood club Sheffield United. At Bramall Lane, he led the Blades through an incredible title-winning campaign, for which he was honoured with the 2017 Sky Bet League One Manager of the Year and the LMA Special Achievement awards at the LMA Annual Awards.

However, success didn’t come overnight and Chris Wilder has certainly served his apprenticeship in the lower leagues. His career in management began in the Northern Counties (East) League Premier Division with Alfeton Town in 2001 and he enjoyed a stint in charge of Halifax Town before guiding Oxford United back to the Football League in 2010.

Here he talks about his career in football and his recent successes.

It is often said that the relationship between the chairman and the manager is the most important in a football club. Given that you’ve worked with Kelvin Thomas at two clubs – Oxford United and Northampton Town – it must have been a solid partnership. How important was that relationship to your success with Oxford?

Kelvin and I got on extremely well right from the start and the fantastic relationships I had not only with him, but also with people like Jim Smith at the club and lifelong Oxford fan Jim Rosenthal were very important.

They had a real understanding of the game and of what was required from a manager and I enjoyed working alongside them to get the club back into the Football League. It was a very disappointing day for me when they left.

I’d agree that the manager’s relationship with the chairman is the most important in a football club and when I’ve had good relationships with those at the top we’ve produced good results. There has to be trust and honesty in that relationship, which I’ve always had with Kelvin. That’s not to say we always saw eye to eye; he had a job to do and so did I, so we’d push back against each other. The same is true here at Sheffield United with Kevin McCabe. What’s most important, though, is that you share the same vision.

You also led Northampton Town to promotion to League One, having saved them from relegation in your first season there.

I really enjoyed my time at the club, but it certainly wasn’t all sunshine. It was tough to take charge of a side that was heading for the drop. No manager wants to let any of their best players go, so to secure survival on the last day against Oxford was fantastic and gave us an opportunity to make plans for the future.

There were some financial issues at Northampton Town during my second year there, which made it a very tough time for everyone concerned. What really stood out for me were the people, some of whom never got paid, who supported me and the players during that period; everyone wanted to save the club. When I left, I did so with my head held high. It’s certainly a period of my career that I won’t forget in a long time; those kinds of experiences build friendships that last a long time and it meant I developed a real affinity with the club.

You then took the helm at Sheffield United, the club where you began your playing career. Did that personal history influence your decision to take the job?

Because I’d played at, and supported, the club and was living in Sheffield, people often make the assumption that it was a long-held dream to manage the club, but actually I never craved this job in particular.

However, when I got the phone call asking if I’d like to meet with the board of directors and the owners, it was very exciting. It’s a fabulous football club and if I hadn’t accepted the offer I would have been left wondering for the rest of my life “what if?” The decision wasn’t as straightforward as it might seem, though, because having family and friends in the city I knew what I would be signing myself up for. It’s been a difficult time for the club and its managers over the last six years, so I knew I’d be under a lot of pressure.

Do you feel added pressure given the club’s long history, and the fact that it was in the Premier League 10 years ago?

I’d love to take this club even higher, but I also recognise the challenges of competing in the Championship and the powerhouses that we’ll be up against. However, we deserve to be there and the momentum we now have will be important.

While there is certainly pressure on me, it’s no more than when I was at Halifax in the Conference; we put ourselves under pressure. The feeling when you win a game is similar at all levels of the game, as is the pain of losing. For me, it’s the same in front of a 29,000-strong crowd at Sheffield United as it was early on in my career.

My level of knowledge has obviously changed and the experiences I’ve gained have improved me as a manager, but the pressure is still there and I think it always will be.

You’ve achieved a managerial first – winning back-to-back titles with different teams. How does that feel?

I’ve just really enjoyed being a manager, right from when I retired from my playing career and started my management career at Alfreton over 17 years ago. They were special times. I’ve always enjoyed working in football and with everyone in it, from the players to everyone else involved in the game.

Management isn’t easy and even those managers who succeed a lot of the time have been through tough times as well; I’ve been through the cycle of success and failure as much as anybody else.

Standing on the touchline at the back end of this season, I told the opposition manager, who I knew well, to “calm down”. He replied, “That’s easy for you to say; you’re top of the league”. I had to remind him that I’d been at Halifax, not getting paid for three months, and at Northampton when we were bottom of the league and survived only on the last day.

You’re not always going to be winning as a manager, so you have to really enjoy it when it happens and relish being part of the game. I’ve had a couple of seasons back-to-back with very special football clubs, working with players and staff who give absolutely everything.

In this game you can never stand still and think too much about your success; we’ve enjoyed the last two seasons and had some great experiences, but now we need to focus on the next challenge, playing Championship-level football.

Alan Knill followed you from Northampton to be your assistant manager at Sheffield United. Did having that continuity in your backroom staff help you when you moved club?

It certainly helped and he’s a great guy to work with. All of the staff are pulling in the same direction here, which is something I’ve demanded at every club I’ve worked at; you can’t ask the players to do that if you’re not leading by example.

We all know what we are trying to achieve and, while there will always be tweaks along the way, we share the same values and are on the same page in terms of how we want the club to operate and the environment and atmosphere we want to create, on and off the pitch.

How do you go about building a winning mentality in your squad?

You have to drive it home, day in, day out, on the training pitch. We try to make training throughout the week really competitive; it’s continuous and relentless and hopefully the players pick up on that. It becomes competitive without going over the top and the players push each other on.

Having talented players, technically and tactically, is obviously essential, but they also need to be mentally strong and want to do well and win. Good recruitment is therefore hugely important in terms of who you bring into the club and how you put them together as a team.

I’m pretty old school in terms of how I deal with the players; I believe that sometimes truths need to be told and the players need to be able to take it. At other times a player may need an arm around him; you have to manage people in different ways. It’s a tough life and it’s a tough industry and I think every individual has to fight and show their character. We want players with confidence and we trust them to go out there and give their best performance; we give them our total backing.

I try to think back to when I was a player: what was the changing room like? What was training like? What treatment from the manager produced my best performances?

Do you feel a sense of personal achievement to be about to compete in the Championship for the first time since you became a manager 16 years ago?

This club has been in League One for far too long and it’s been a difficult six years; it’s been close a few times, but until now it just hasn’t clicked. It’s a tough division to play in, especially when you’re one of the bigger clubs because there are expectations on you. We’ll now be where we believe we should be in terms of the size of the club and the support we have, home and away.

We now need to get a foothold in the Championship and earn the right to stay there. It’s going to be a fantastic experience for the supporters and we hope they enjoy it. We’re back where we belong.