It has felt like this moment had been coming for a while. Everyone will lose from the clash between Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and the boyhood Blade.
It was more than just passion for his club that ex-player Wilder brought to an institution in the doldrums in 2016. Then they were preparing for their sixth straight season in League One; this time last year they were pushing to play in Europe.
Ultimately they fell short and will soon be relegated from the Premier League, but the team and club which take on Leicester City tomorrow is in far better shape than when he joined.
Wilder – who beat Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola to the LMA’s 2019 manager of the year award – revolutionised them on the field but the next part of his plan, catching up off it, will at best follow a different path.
In recent press conferences Wilder joked about playing his cards close to his chest when it came to injuries but by and large he is an open book. There was always the danger a member of royalty and a plain-speaking Blade would be uncomfortable bedfellows.
As even Liverpool are finding now and Manchester City did last season, success does not always travel in a straight line and this has been a very bad campaign. Along with just about everyone else at the club, Wilder cannot escape his share of the blame for the impending relegation.
The remarkable and rapid – in some respects, too rapid, – rise he oversaw ought to have earnt him the opportunity to put things right.
His willingness to speak his mind and insistence on complete control were tolerated when he was producing results but once they melted away, the buffer quickly went too.
It was very different last January when the prince pushed forward £22m of spending for Sander Berge. The trouble was, Wilder kept wanting more and his summer signings did not have the same instant impact, or at least enough to persuade the prince to keep pushing the boat out. The players trained ferociously at home during the first lockdown to try and maintain the momentum which improbably put them in the Premier League’s top six when pause was pressed. Perhaps they were pushed too hard but nobody knew how long the lay-off would be, or had experienced anything like it.
The Blades were more in need of marginal gains than most to make up the gaps to wealthier established clubs, and the absence of fans took one away. As their momentum went, underperforming giants beneath them regrouped and the condensed fixture list let them flex their big squads. Usually only playing once a week pre-lockdown, Wilder’s team was almost set in stone – Henderson, Basham, Egan, O’Connell, Baldock, Lundstram (or Berge from January), Norwood, Fleck, Stevens, plus two strikers. Now a few looked jaded, John Lundstram was refusing a new contract and Jack O’Connell returned injured.
When the technology and the referee failed to spot Aston Villa goalkeeper Orjan Nyland carrying Oliver Norwood’s free-kick over the line on the resumption it was a sliding doors moment for both teams. The Blades followed a 0-0 draw with three consecutive defeats and although there was a brief second wind, that was how the season ended too. Ninth place was hugely creditable but bad finishes often have knock-on effects, something the Blades must be acutely aware of now.Wilder tried to add depth and quality in the summer but his pandemic-hit resources left him having to gamble. Aaron Ramsdale could not match the presence, confidence and quality of Dean Henderson, but could the Blades have afforded and attracted anyone who could?
They needed a goalscorer and wanted Brentford’s Ollie Watkins but could not afford him. Villa, having stayed up by a point, could, and signed Blades target Matty Cash too. All £24m got them was a promising striker who had a good half-season on loan in the Championship but had never played Premier League football. Rhian Brewster is still awaiting his first goal.
When, late in the window O’Connell’s patched-up knee gave up, Wilder wanted a replacement but the prince had spent up.
The lack of quality at both ends showed in a series of narrow but consecutive defeats. Fifteen losses and two draws in the first 17 games was as unbelievable as sixth in March.
The prince voiced support before a miserable defeat at Southampton, saying if the Blades went down, Wilder was the sort of manager he would want to bring them back. That tune has changed.
Ramsdale is only now coming into his own and fellow summer signing Jayden Bogle emerged as a potential first-choice in February but Brewster’s signing is yet to pay off, Oli Burke and Max Lowe have played bit-parts and occasional mistakes made Ethan Ampadu look the raw youngster he is. The prince began January promising just two loans but with his confidence in Wilder’s dealing eroded, even they were not forthcoming. Rumours of a director of football began to gain ground in recent weeks.
Before this month’s match against Aston Villa, Wilder admitted he did not know if he would be at the club next season. Asked if he wanted to be, he replied: “If we stick to the plan.”
Airing his frustrations in public was always risky without results. No one was allowed onto the terraces to chant “Chrissy Wilder, we want you to stay” as in previous power struggles.
You can bet they would have done. Wilder is one of their own. For five years he was far more than that, but not any more.
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