Since being appointed manager of Sheffield United in 2016, Chris Wilder has inspired his home-town and boyhood team to two promotions. He was even voted LMA Manager of the Year in 2019 after leading the club to the top flight of English football.
With the Blades now back in the Premier League for the first time in 12 years, he is adamant that he is not about to make radical changes to their game or to his authentic and inclusive style of leadership.
“Football has always been my obsession.”
I can clearly remember playing football in the back garden of my mum and dad’s house when I was five or six. My family’s connection with Sheffield United goes back quite a long way, as my grandad had a trial for Sheffield United Reserves. He played football part time and worked at the local steelworks.
I also have a connection with Liverpool, as my dad is from there. At one stage his work took us to live in London, so for three years my summers were spent travelling to Liverpool or going to Sheffield to visit grandparents. At that time Liverpool were dominating football, so my loyalties were pulled in two directions until we moved back to live in Sheffield. Then United became my sole focus.
“My parents worked hard for everything we had.”
At one point, my dad even had three or four jobs at the same time. When things aren’t handed to you on a plate, you have to go out there and work really hard to achieve them. Certainly, it’s from my parents that I got my values and my hard-work ethic; I never take my foot off the gas.
I believe that, like any manager, I need to keep learning, improving and moving with the times, but the positive values I hold – honesty, commitment, working as a team, being competitive – still underlie everything I do. They also help to keep me grounded.
Those core values have shaped the culture I’ve built at Sheffield United, one of honesty, openness and inclusion. It’s essential that everyone in the staff and playing team is pulling in one direction, but at the same time I understand that they’re all individuals and I want them to feel able to express themselves. It’s important to me that they know they each have an important part to play in the success of the team and that they enjoy coming to work every day. Communication is, therefore, massively important, so I speak with the players a lot and encourage an open doors policy.
The same goes for my support staff. I have great people around me, from our sports science and first-team coaching staff to my assistant manager, Alan Knill. I’m very inclusive, so while I’ll make the final decisions, I always welcome and value other people’s opinions.
“Some of my approaches stem from my time as a player.”
I think back to those times and ask, in what environment and under what leadership did I play my best football? Then, of course, you also have to adapt your approach to the players in your team and the club you’re at. At Sheffield United we really engage with our fans and, as a Sheffield man myself who has supported the side since the age of 10, I feel a real connection with the supporters and the city.
“You have to stay grounded in this game.”
I think football management is so relentless and unforgiving that you can’t allow yourself to become complacent. If ever you think you’ve cracked it, you’ll probably come unstuck. But I’ve always taken the approach that you have to believe in what you’re doing, in the system you want to play and in your players.
We’ve developed our game over a number of years and, as much as possible, I want us to keep playing the same style of football we’ve employed successfully over the last three years.
I know, however, that you have to be adaptable to any situation that you encounter, whether that’s in between games or during a match. Rather than just sticking rigidly to one system or style of play, you need to be decisive as a manager and be prepared to alter your approach. There are, after all, different ways to win a game of football and to be successful.
“Winning LMA Manager of the Year was validating.”
It was an honour for me, the players and the football club, especially given it was voted for by my managerial peers. I’m also proud to follow in the footsteps of managers who faced similar situations to me, as well as those right at the very top of the game. I have a massive amount of respect and admiration for managers at the elite level who have to deal with quite different challenges, not least the incredibly high expectations and pressures at the top.
Having the opportunity to spend time with these managers really inspires me and I’m looking forward to welcoming them into my office after games this season. We may be competitors, but we’re all alike in working in a very tough, results-driven business, and there are a lot of good people in the game.
“I love listening to other managers’ experiences.”
It was great to listen to Pep Guardiola speak at a recent LMA insight event and I value the opportunities I’ve had to spend time with the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, Walter Smith, Howard Wilkinson and Sam Allardyce. Listening to other senior managers helps you to continue to learn new ways to improve yourself and the team, and it can give you more confidence in your own methods. However, you can’t copy someone else’s style of leadership or football directly, because every team is unique and is at a different level. Instead, learn as much as possible from others while remaining authentic and true to yourself.
“Different times lie ahead for us.”
We have total respect for whatever league we’re playing in and it’s an attitude I’ve always instilled in the players. When we were promoted to the Championship, our aim was to get a foothold in the division and earn the right to stay there, and we’re taking the same approach now with the Premier League.
We want to be hard-working and not get over confident or complacent if things are going well. We want to continue to express ourselves and stick together, and support one another when the going gets tough. I think these are qualities that all great teams share.
We know there will be challenges from a physical, technical, tactical and mental toughness point of view and as a team we’ve talked about these a great deal. It’s important that the players and I know how we’ll approach any new experiences and setbacks.
The mindset of the players going into the Premier League is particularly important to me, but I’m confident they’ll remain grounded and will thrive on this fantastic opportunity. There needs to be a good balance between feeling excited and feeding off the new challenges this season, and continuing to play with the freedom that we’re known for.
“I’m not going to set any monthly targets.”
We’re simply going to try to get points from every game that we play in. I’m not going to sit here and think it’s realistic that we can finish in the top seven or eight, but equally I’m not aiming for us merely to survive in this division.
There’s been a glint in the players’ eyes and we’re all enjoying getting out there in the Premier League and proving ourselves going toe to toe with other clubs in the Premier League and competing with some of the best in the world. I’m also looking forward to competing again against Daniel Farke, who did a fantastic job getting Norwich promoted to the Premier League as champions last season.
Our performances earned us the right to be in the Premier League and now we need to show everybody that we deserve to stay here.