On March 13, with Sheffield United sat rock bottom of the Premier League, Chris Wilder’s time in charge ended when his contract – which had been extended by four years just 14 months earlier – was cancelled by mutual consent.
It was a gloomy day all round. A lifelong Sheffield United fan had left the job of a lifetime, a management change was on the way and the club were well on their way back to the Championship.
But as he reflects on the almost five-year spell – which took United from League One to the Premier League – the overwhelming feeling is pride.
“I’m incredibly proud to have brought the club back together again, regardless of the incredible experiences we had; the first season getting 100 points, the second season the first time we played our rivals for a bit and then back into the Championship, where the club should be, at a minimum,” he told Sky Bet’s League of 72 YouTube channel.
“Obviously, the journey into the Premier League and even the experiences in the season that didn’t go so well. There was a huge disconnect between every part of that football club, which I felt because I was still living in the city. We brought some pride back into the badge.”
Being under the Premier League spotlight
Reaching the Premier League after 12 seasons away meant many things had changed by the time Sheffield United returned there in 2019, most notably the significant increase in media coverage and the element of pressure that generates.
“You’ve got to be prepared and ready – the coverage is incredible,” he continues.
“Before it was a team photo on the pitch and Yorkshire Post and some Sheffield outlets. I got to know them all because we used to have our Christmas party with the journalists at Bramall Lane. Then, all of a sudden, we’re in an indoor area of the training ground and it’s absolutely mobbed [with people] from every part of the world.
“I think the best way I could describe it is that every Premier League game was an event. The lead up, before during, after, people having an opinion on you and your players and team. Analysis after on how you’d done. It was incredible. So much scrutiny and you have to be careful not take it to heart.
“We had a fab first season so there were a lot of positives said about us. It was a fabulous season, unfortunately we couldn’t keep it going.”
Though he cannot help but highlight his own potential shortcomings, Wilder is, on the whole, content with his contribution.
“Of course there are a few situations I could and should have handled differently. Inwardly, I know I’m not arrogant enough to think I got everything right. Relationships, lines of communication, some signings we made. Certain things that, in hindsight, I’d have done differently.
“But during the heat of battle, you’re at the coalface and you have to make those decisions. I’d like to think for that club I made more right than wrong decisions. But that happens in everything in any relationship or any line of work you’re in, no one gets it completely right all the time.”
‘You want to be involved in a club that has a passion and drive’
Wilder’s time at his boyhood club means he is no stranger to a club with a passionate fanbase and one steeped in history.
He was in charge as the Blades rose from the unfamiliar depths of League One – where they had endured three failed play-off campaigns – through the Championship and back into the Premier League.
Wilder expects to throw himself into a similar firefighting job again in the future.
“I don’t think there is a perfect club or job. There will always be a dodge or situations where it isn’t exactly how you want it to run. But you want to work with people going in the same direction and there’s always a difficult question to answer because every club has their own dynamics.
“Unless you are David Beckham at Inter Miami, where you can build your own club, you have still got to deal with owners, punters etc. Usually you walk into a club that’s broken. No doubt the next job I wouldn’t be surprised if I walked into a club that’s in a bad position. And I need to use my qualities to turn that around.
“You want to be involved in a club that’s connected and has a passion and a drive, and that can be brought to the table by a lot of people: supporters, owners, managers, players. I’ve really enjoyed my journey.”
‘I would be open to different opportunities’
As the next chapter of the Chris Wilder story unfolds, the 53-year-old is refreshingly open about where his career may take him, whether it is at home or abroad.
“I do enjoy the English game, but I would be open to different opportunities. America intrigues me, it really does. The attitude of the Americans to sport and business, how they go about their business and sport in general, how professional they are. It’s kicking in going into the World Cup in 2026.
“You look at every opportunity on face value; the history, support, infrastructure, facilities. I feel I’ve done enough to be selective without wanting to get my hands dirty. If something happened in League One that I thought had an ambition to go forward [I would be interested].
“I’d like to work in the Premier League, really. The Championship is most likely and that’s a brilliant division. It’s rare an English manager will get offered a chance at the top clubs, I understand that. You generally have to take a club up.”
It goes without saying that he will not be on his way to Hillsborough, though.
“I’d never take that job, just to put that on record,” he says, with a grin. “Ian Holloway used to say players couldn’t have red cars in the Bristol Rovers car park. I agree with him!
“I couldn’t do it and I don’t think they’d want me. That’s part of my personality, my upbringing and history. I couldn’t do it. But second of all, I don’t think they’d ever want me.”