Sheffield United v Southampton - How a grounding at Saints helped shape Chris Wilder

Chris Wilder (Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage)
Chris Wilder (Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage)
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CONSULT the cherished navy blue Rothmans Football Yearbooks of yore and they will denote that Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder never made so much as a senior appearance at his first club Southampton.

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Chris Wilder manager of Sheffield Utd used to be a YTS at Southampton: (Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage via PA Images)

Chris Wilder manager of Sheffield Utd used to be a YTS at Southampton: (Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage via PA Images)

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But in terms of providing a grounding in the game, Wilder’s time by the Solent as a wide-eyed teenager in the early- to mid- Eighties was still comprehensive.

It taught him invaluable lessons in life, never mind those restricted to the football pitch.

Wilder’s weekly apprentice wage of ‘£27.40’ – supplemented by an extra fiver if he cleaned the boots of star Saints striker Steve Moran – may have been a comparative pittance, but he felt rich in ways that money cannot buy.

Rubbing shoulders with household international names in the winter of their careers does that.

Clearing the terraces at the old Dell and living in digs also formed part of his tapestry of memories from his time in Hampshire – many miles from home.

As does the pain of rejection when released by Southampton at the age of 19.

For a brief moment, Wilder may well reflect on coming a long way in both his footballing life and as a human being when he heads towards the home dug-out just before kick-off against Saints.

He probably would not change too much either; sometimes you must deal with the cards you are dealt with, good and bad.

Wilder, who moved back to Bramall Lane after being shown the door by Saints in 1986 said: “Southampton was a fantastic education, working with good people. Those formative years shaped me not just as a footballer but as a person really.

“I moved away from Sheffield at 16 and it was fantastic. I am forever grateful for the opportunity of being an apprentice at an old Division One club with former England captains such as Mick Mills and Peter Shilton.

“A great experience ultimately ended in disappointment; the first in my career and one I had to get over pretty quickly.

“But these things happen, you have to get over it and I went on to have a career.

“For character building and life lessons in every way, it was so important. It was ‘old school’ apprentice stuff such as cleaning terraces and removing snow from the pitch and cleaning boots. I will be a little bit controversial and I know young players now do not do those things that maybe the older ones did, but I am not sure (why).

“I think there was certainly a connection that myself and young players had with seniors at Southampton in how they lived their lives and were as top professionals.”

A side who regularly competed in Europe and at the top end of Division One under a former Coldstream Guard in Lawrie McMenemy, Southampton were a team to be respected back in the day, a side blessed with former stars, solid old-school professionals and emerging talents who wowed audiences at The Dell.

It was a parochial venue, but that particular corner of the south coast was a fun place to be for home supporters in some halcyon days and a treacherous one for away sides.

In its own way, it is something that Wilder is striving to replicate at his spiritual home up north.

What is also true is that the young players who come through at Bramall Lane can count on a similar grounding in life, courtesy of Wilder’s senior professionals – though perhaps not the same list of chores as Wilder did.

Some make it and some – like Wilder at Southampton – will not, but they will be handed the right education along the way.

Wilder, who first met assistant manager Alan Knill during their time at Saints, added: “I remember we once got beaten in a Southern Junior floodlit game at under-16 level. We lost 5-0 at home to West Ham and at 6am next morning, we were running around the track 40 times.

“I remember all sorts from that time that was really good, such as working as a team in a team environment.

“A winning culture was instilled in us all.

“The proof in the pudding comes in terms of number of (professional) players who come through; not always for the first team.

“That is the key. From our point of view, we want to produce players for the first team, but professionals as well. We have done that in the past and will do in future.

“It is not always just about the technical and tactical, but physical and most importantly, mentaly. Young apprentices were tested every day to produce on and off the pitch. That is one of the big lessons I learned down there.”

Whatever happens this afternoon, Wilder will always have a lot to thank Southampton for.