Not so long ago, deep inside the bowels of the Steelphalt Academy, Chris Wilder reflected upon his first six months at Bramall Lane.
Surrounded by a small selection of journalists and, following recent results, in very gregarious mood, the 49-year-old spoke openly about systems, tactics and transfer policy. But he became most animated when asked about his responsibilities beyond the football pitch.
“It should be about the club, not just the team,” Wilder replied. “When I came in, and I’m not being disrespectful to previous regimes, but I got the feeling the whole place needed bringing together. This football club is at it’s best, it always has been, when everyone is pulling in the same direction in everything they do. We’ve all got different jobs but we all want the same thing. For Sheffield United to be successful and get back to where it should be.”
Wilder’s refusal to focus purely on sporting matters goes a long way towards explaining why, despite their chequered start to the new season, United now find themselves in a pretty good place. Performances help and, after beating MK Dons last month, his squad travels to Chesterfield on Sunday having won eight and drawn three of their previous 11 games. But the manager’s down-to-earth approach as also helped improve the atmosphere, communication and consequentially outcomes behind the scenes.
“Even people in the office, we want them to come in and enjoy their work. Yes, it helps when you are winning games of football. But we want a winning environment all the way through the club. This is a fantastic football club to be involved with and we want everybody, who is here for our period, to look back when it’s over with fond memories.”
Of course, the greatest gift Wilder could give United’s owners, staff and supporters is an automatic promotion. Or preferably two. Five men have taken charge of the club since its relegation from the Championship in 2011 and only Danny Wilson, now overseeing affairs at the Proact Stadium, has come tantalisingly close.
Wilder, who guided Northampton Town to the League Two title last term, hopes his experiences at Sixfields can help him break the mould.
“Last year, at Northampton, we were somewhere where people didn’t get paid for three months because of financial issues,” he continued. “The staff, at any time they could have got the white flag out and left, but they didn’t. And I like to think that’s because they felt, working for the club, they always got treated in a respectful way. That togetherness, was one of the things I identified, probably needed doing here. It’s not just me. It’s everybody who has a part to play in that.”
Including, Wilder acknowledged, the most influential members of his organisation. United’s players.
“I’m not being disrespectful because I want people, individuals, to enjoy their football. But the little things, digging your mates out of trouble and stuff like that, are so, so important. Even if we are three or four nil up with a minute remaining. It’s rubbish to say otherwise.”
High octane training sessions - one squad member recently remarked how Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill will call a halt if players fail to show enough aggression - have fuelled United’s climb to fourth in the table. The ability to score goals, and prevent others from scoring them, too.
Jose Mourinho once told Brendan Rodgers that, if defending was easy, Liverpool would have been crowned Premier League champions two years ago. Wilder, despite watching his side hit the target 22 times in their last six matches, is firmly in the Portuguese’s camp.
“Chelsea, in that period, were an absolute prime example,” Wilder said. “They would do whatever it took, changing shape or whatever, to keep the ball out of the net. We can’t make players do anything when they’re out there. But, at the same time, they know what we’re about, they know what we expect and they know the type of things we want to see. Equally, they know the things that we don’t.”
Although United travel to Derbyshire second in the form table - averaging 2.33 points per game since drawing with Scunthorpe compared to Bolton’s 2.5 - they are far from the finished article. Concerns were expressed about the depth of their attacking options during Leon Clarke’s absence while the number of goals scored from midfield can also be improved. Clarke, together with Matt Done, returned to action at Grimsby Town earlier this week.
“We talked a while back,” Wilder said. “We’ve got quarter stats. I’m not a big stats man. The only one I’m really interested in is three points on a Saturday afternoon. But they do give you an idea about whether what you are thinking needs doing is right. All our midfield players have got the technical ability to score from distance and the stats showed that we weren’t taking enough of those opportunities.”