“Not ‘old school,’ just ‘right school’.”
When Chris Wilder was paying tribute to Jim Smith he could just as easily have been talking about himself.
Smith, who died this week aged 79, was one of the directors who appointed Wilder as manager of Oxford United in 2008, and it is easy to see how two Sheffield-born, plain-speaking and ultra-competitive football men who treated their players like adults and expected full commitment in return got on. Both had core values rooted in their traditions, without closing their mind to new thinking.
The lessons Wilder learnt from Smith will serve him well as he leads his beloved Blades out at home to Aston Villa in the Premier League today.
“I could relate to Jim, he was a Sheffield boy and along with Alan Hodgkinson he was instrumental in me getting the Oxford job,” said Wilder. “Jim is somebody I admired him enormously and he gave me great help when I first went down to Oxford.
“I had lived in Sheffield for the majority of my life and he was always there – didn’t miss a home game and went to the away games. He was a fantastic mentor for me.”
Toughness was a theme of the Blades’ pre-match press conference, with goalkeeper Dean Henderson talking about the abuse he has had to endure in his fledgling career, and Wilder about the character within his dressing room. It is another trait he shared with Smith.
“He was great for me as a young manager, he used to come in after a game and one of first things he would talk about was how Wednesday and United had got on, we had that rivalry as well,” Wilder recalled.
“He would dissect the game and talk through his thoughts. He was honest about it – quite brutal at times – but you’ve got to get on with it. I don’t think it hurts from time to time.
“He had total respect from all the players he managed. Maybe a few of the weaker ones wouldn’t have enjoyed as much but it toughens you up because the game of football is a tough business.
“He was a very talented man, a proper football man who loved the game and as a young manager those moments with him were absolutely priceless.
“I’m desperately sorry for Yvonne and the family and it’s a sad, sad miss.”
Despite starting his playing career as an amateur with the Blades in 1957, Smith was a boyhood Wednesdayite, who would go on to make 113 appearances at wing-half for Halifax Town. It was as a manager, though, that he made his name.
Perhaps as much for his plain-speaking and longevity as anything else, Smith had a reputation for being “old school”. It is a tag Wilder finds himself labelled with now, despite methods a world away from those used in Smith’s time in the dugout. Wilder’s interpretation of his old mentor applies equally to him.
“(In all the tributes this week) I heard a couple bits saying he was ‘old school’ – nah, he was just ‘right school’,” he commented. “He wanted to win and expected his players to perform and compete.
“I struggle to get my head around the ‘old school’ bit. He was a proper, proper manager in the inner circle of the top managers in this country.
“I once went to an LMA (League Manager’s Association) do with him as a young manager and he was running the show with Sir Alex (Ferguson), Walter Smith and (Lawrie) McMenemy. He was so highly respected.”
Smith was chief executive of the manager’s union and is in their hall of fame. He was fond of but by no means wedded to the formation Wilder is using to such good effect at Bramall Lane at present.
“Jim played 3-5-2 for a while,” said Wilder.
“But I don’t think anyone gets absolutely pigeon-holed with formations. To have the career he did, he’d have to change with the times and players from when he first started to later on.
“I should imagine being in a changing room with him would have been interesting!
“He was a winner who demanded respect, but in terms of formations and how he played, he had to have various ones and to be flexible in all forms of management.
“(He took charge of over) 1,000 games and LMA hall of fame, he was a brilliant football guy and I’ve got some stories I can tell you and some I can’t, I’ll leave it at that!”
Wilder’s brand of 3-5-2 is particularly demanding of his wing-backs, and goals for Enda Stevens and George Baldock at Norwich City last Sunday highlighted what the Bramall Lane faithful already knew – they are crucial to the Blades’ success.
Former full-back Wilder is full of admiration for their fitness, as well as their quality.
“I don’t know how they do it,” he confessed. “When I played it I used to call it ‘right idiot’ and ‘left idiot’. They had to run and get in the box and head one in the back stick, and next minute track the winger back and clear one off the line. The way these boys have adapted to the position has been first class and from a conditioning and a mobility point of view and as athletes, George and Enda are right up there in the distance they cover and very, very influential in the way we play.”
Wilder is no clone of Smith’s, or anyone else for that matter, but the “Bald Eagle” will be looking down on Bramall Lane this afternoon pleased to see some of the values he prized so highly still in action in today’s Premier League.