Chris Wilder heading towards Sheffield United exit

Chris Wilder’s managerial marriage to Sheffield United is over but at the time of going to press a divorce was yet to be finalised.

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder. Picture: PA.
Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder. Picture: PA.

Word leaked out early yesterday morning that the former defender’s five-year spell as manager had come to an end, but by late last night there was still no confirmation with negotiations over the terms of his departure believed to be the reason.

A planned 10am press conference with a Blades player to preview tomorrow’s Premier League trip to Leicester City was cancelled at short notice, as was Wilder’s 1.30pm briefing. Another Zoom conference was organised for 5pm, then cancelled shortly beforehand due to “unforeseen circumstances”.

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The Blades are bottom of the Premier League with relegation seemingly inevitable but it is not this but tensions over the club’s future direction which are expected to cause his departure by mutual consent. A mutual loss of confidence between himself and owner/chairman Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud might be a more accurate description.

Wilder’s frustration has grown this season and bubbled to the surface in a press conference at the start of this month where he admitted he did not know if he would still be manager at the start of 2021-22 despite Prince Abdullah’s public support before December’s loss at Southampton, subsequently reiterated.

Asked if he wanted to stay, he added: “Yep, definitely. If we stick to the plan,” but made it clear he was being frustrated in his attempts to discuss “the plan”.

Wilder broke the Blades’ transfer record in September to sign striker Rhian Brewster but missed out on a number of targets including Ollie Watkins and Matty Cash.

When it was revealed shortly before the transfer window closed centre-back Jack O’Connell had undergone knee surgery and may not play again this season, the board refused to sign a replacement and Wilder voiced his unhappiness.

Again he asked for recruits in January and again he was refused, prompting rumours he had resigned.

In July it was announced a new training ground building would be built by the end of the year, but it has not come to pass despite stories of a roof caving in at one of the existing Shirecliffe buildings.

On top of Covid-19 restricting income, another reason Prince Abdullah limited his backing is thought to be eroding trust in Wilder’s recruitment. Money was brought forward to sign Sander Berge for £22m in January 2020 and he looked a good signing until a freak tendon injury in mid-December, one of a number of injuries to a tight squad, but loanees Panagiotis Retsos and Richairo Zivkovic came and went without starting for the club.

Brewster is yet to score for the Blades, fellow striker Oliver Burke has two goals, goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale has lacked presence, loanee Ethan Ampadu has had a mixed time and fellow summer signings Jayden Bogle, Max Lowe and Wes Foderingham were signed to flesh out the squad. At the prices and wages paid, proven quality was always going to be hard to attract. Wilder prides himself on being a hands-on manager and his blueprint for next season involved keeping the core of the squad and adding signings, whilst using the money earned in two Premier League seasons to improve an infrastructure which had not kept pace with the team’s rapid rise. Rumours spread that Prince Abdullah was considering a director of football to oversee transfers.

Complicating a pay-off is the fact Wilder would have taken a substantial wage cut on relegation and whilst that looks inevitable, it is not yet confirmed.

Former ballboy, defender and captain Wilder will leave with his standing still high amongst his fellow Blades supporters having ended their six-year stay in League One and taken them to ninth in last season’s Premier League.

“If he was here he would be fighting to be champion. If I was in Sheffield maybe I would fight to not be relegated,” argued Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, who Wilder beat to the League Manager’s Association’s manager of the year award in 2019.

Former Leeds United and Barnsley manager Paul Heckingbottom is expected to step up from the Under-23s to take the first team at Leicester.

Ex-Celtic manager Neil Lennon and former Huddersfield Town boss Danny Cowley have been mooted as possible full-time replacements, whilst Wilder has already been linked with Lennon’s old job in Glasgow.

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