From Stocksbridge to Premier League for Sheffield United chief Chris Wilder
Nestled away in the upper Don Valley, the town’s football club, Stocksbridge Park Steels, was famously where Jamie Vardy cut his teeth in non-league circles and began his epic journey to becoming a top-flight champion and England international.
It is also the birthplace of Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder, with his story and that of Leicester City forward Vardy providing inspiration to aspiring managers and players alike that humble origins – in life and football – are no bar to representation in the league widely considered to be the world’s best.
The feats of Wilder, one of a select band of managers to win promotion to all four of England’s top divisions, have resonated strongly among his peers of late.
So much so that they picked him, ahead of the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino among others, for the League Managers’ Associations’ prestigious Manager of the Year award at their gala dinner at the end of last season.
Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe was LMA manager of the year in 2015, with the fact that the top flight now has six Englishmen who have done the hard yards in the lower leagues and elsewhere offering hope to countless others who are seeking their big break.
Wilder, joined in the Premier League by fellow Englishmen Howe, Sean Dyche, Dean Smith, Graham Potter and Roy Hodgson – with Frank Lampard to potentially add to that – said: “What other owners or chairman do and pathway they go down – appointing a young manager who played for England or who was one of the best players in the world or a foreign influence – it is their choice.
“I think for us to get into the situation we have, we have done it our way and the right way because if we had not, then we would not have had the success we have had over the last three years.
“So we will stick to what we are about and hopefully from an English point of view, I said at the LMA dinner that seeing the likes of myself and Eddie Howe and Sean (Dyche) managing in the top division is great.
“Hopefully, my journey gives people down the line some inspiration that it can be done.”
The story of the Blades bares similarities to that at Bournemouth and Burnley, with Wilder, Howe and Dyche building their success around a strong domestic core who have grown together during special times at Bramall Lane, the Vitality Stadium and Turf Moor.
Much like opening-day opponents Bournemouth did back in 2015-16, United are likely to begin their top-flight adventure with a number of players who were with them in League One.
That will represent a source of pride to Wilder, but the Blades chief is conscious of his side’s own need to evolve to be successful and pressing requirement to carve out their own niche.
He added: “There is obviously inspiration from your Burnleys, Bournemouths and your Brightons who are not the powerhouses of English football, but who have established themselves in the Premier League.
“Bournemouth is a good story in that when we were on pre-season in Spain three years ago, they were there and the likes of Harry Artur and Simon Francis and Charlie Daniels who played in that League One team were playing in the Premier League. I think that was their second season in the Premier League.
“It shows that it can be done but what you have to do, first and foremost, is get there and establish yourself and get a foothold in the division and stay in it.”
Wilder is under no illusions about the extent of the next challenge, but there is a justifiably-held perception that the Blades’ own tale – rich in spirit, camaraderie, togetherness, talent and hope – has more pages to pen yet.
Those qualities served their Yorkshire rivals Huddersfield Town infinitely well as they memorably retained their cherished top-flight status in 2017-18, with Wilder acknowledging that survival has to be the next natural barometer for his side.
“It has to be, yes,” Wilder observed.
“Like I said last year, if people thought it was a poor (Championship) division or teams under-achieved or whatever, we got 89 points and it was enough to get us out of the division.
“We will have to be cute and up our game on the pitch and off the pitch, but we recognise the challenge that is in front of us.
“It is an enormous challenge staying in the division and it will obviously be better than getting out of the previous division, but we are excited and we are not scared about it.
“You have go to keep evolving and you have got to keep taking those small steps.
“We are not going to rip up everything we have done and change everything, I do not think that is fair.
“We cannot do that and we will go about it our way – the Sheffield United way – and believe that it is going to be good enough to succeed.”