CHRIS WILDER can perhaps be forgiven for being, by his own admission, “not too fussed about a birthday that starts with a five” as the Sheffield United manager today reaches the half-century mark.
If any manager encapsulates the notion ‘life begins at 40’ then it is the former full-back so no wonder he was not overly keen to wave goodbye to a decade that brought three promotions and a career rise that proves hard work really does gets its just rewards in the end.
Going from arguably the toughest apprenticeship of all time – Wilder once likened the quest of taking Halifax Town back into the Football League as “trying to win Formula 1 in a Ford Escort” – to those promotions with Oxford United, Northampton Town and Sheffield United means he starts his sixth decade as very much the man of the moment.
Tomorrow will bring another notable landmark on that upwards trajectory as the former Bramall Lane ball-boy and lifelong fan takes charge of his first Steel City derby. Three points would be the ideal belated birthday present, even if Wilder admits to feeling a tad underwhelmed at reaching 50.
“When the fixtures came out in the summer and I saw we had been handed a trip to the other side of the city on the same day as my birthday, I did find it funny,” Wilder told The Yorkshire Post earlier this week when taking a break from his preparations for the first derby between these old foes since February, 2012.
“A lot of my pals also found it amusing and were in touch straight away, saying we had to get the three points. Sky TV then moved the game back to Sunday but I wasn’t too fussed, if I am honest. The derby isn’t about me or any other individual.
“Plus, if I am honest, I am not too fussed about a birthday that starts with a ‘5’ anyway so it is probably best to get it out of the way and then focus on what matters, the three points.”
Wilder will make the short trip to Hillsborough with his managerial stock at an all-time high. United’s record-breaking title win in League One last season, coming on the back of leading Northampton Town out of the basement division 12 months earlier, made him the first manager since Ian Porterfield 35 years earlier to win back-to-back championships in the bottom two divisions.
United’s impressive start to life back in the Championship, the club sit sixth after taking 15 points from eight games, has further boosted the profile of someone whose previous successes as a manager tended to go under the radar of the wider football public. Not that the man himself was unduly bothered.
“It is not for me to discuss,” said Wilder when asked if he deserved more recognition earlier in his career. “I just focused on doing my best, with the tools I was given. I just wanted to get on with my job, anything else was irrelevant.”
Such an attitude is perhaps not a surprise for someone whose playing career was the very epitome of helping the team rather than seeking personal glory.
Dave Bassett, the manager who Wilder won his two promotion as a player under at Bramall Lane, stressed that point when speaking to this newspaper last April. “Chris was a lad who you could rely on,” said the former Blades chief. “He had great technique and, in my time, showed great stoicism to stay a part of things. Chris had a good, solid career and he took that work ethic into management.”
Wilder had many of those qualities instilled in him as an apprentice at Southampton, learning his trade alongside the likes of Matt Le Tissier, Rod Wallace, Francis Benali and Phil Parkinson in the youth set-up.
It was an unusual starting point for a career that has had lengthy spells in his native Yorkshire, with not just the Blades but also Rotherham United, Bradford City and Halifax. For that, Kevin Keegan can be thanked after Wilder’s dad, when researching where would best suit his son, managed to get hold of a ’phone number for the former England captain and sought his advice.
Back then, I was a bit of a lunatic. Even when the chance came at Alfreton – after I had inadvertently helped the previous manager get the sack by playing three games and losing two of them! – I wasn’t sure if it was for me.Chris Wilder
“Sheffield United wanted to sign me but my dad was having none of it,” recalls the 50-year-old. “He felt there were better options out there for me, especially as neither Sheffield club had a good reputation for developing kids back then.
“It was about 1981 and United were struggling. There was no real organisation and my dad had seen that. Of course, as someone who stood on the Kop every week and who had been a ball-boy, I didn’t agree but I trusted my dad and am glad I did.
“I eventually went to Southampton. In those days, young lads went to clubs in the school holidays and I had time at Forest, Everton, Manchester United and Arsenal but dad said ‘Southampton’.
“It turned out to be good advice. They taught us so much, not just on the field but about how to set good standards off it.”
Wilder never made a senior appearance at The Dell and knew the end was coming following a change of manager that saw Lawrie McMenemy replaced by Chris Nicholl. Gerry Forrest, the long-standing Rotherham full-back, arrived soon after, nudging Wilder even further down the pecking order.
“I was too old for the youth team so not playing at all,” he recalls. “Thankfully, Glenn Cockerill, who had been at Sheffield United, put a word in for me and told the manager here to take a look.
“I came in for pre-season in 1986, did well in a trial and got offered a one-year contract. Thirty-one years on, I am manager of the club. It is funny how things work out.”
Wilder’s full-time playing career ended at the age of 33. Within a few months, he was on the way to leading Alfreton Town to four trophies and promotion in his first season at the helm. So, had management always been an ambition? “Not in my early days,” he adds. “Back then, I was a bit of a lunatic. Even when the chance came at Alfreton – after I had inadvertently helped the previous manager get the sack by playing three games and losing two of them! – I wasn’t sure if it was for me.
“I had only just finished playing full-time and didn’t know if it would be right for me.”
That success with Alfreton earned Wilder a chance at Halifax. He would spent six years at The Shay and experience everything from having to beg and borrow training facilities through to the staff’s wage cheques bouncing.
“The lads would ask if we could pull over on the bus to a game and find the nearest bank on the High Street so they could pay the cheque in,” he laughs. “Anyone who left it a day ran the risk of not having any money all week.”
Despite this off-field chaos, Wilder took Halifax to the 2006 Conference play-off final and within 10 minutes of promotion back to the League only to lose 3-2 to Hereford United after extra-time. Two years later, the club folded amid debts of £2m.
“I have certainly seen everything that can be chucked at me at every level,” says Wilder, whose time at Northampton including months when the wages were not paid.
“But I am happy to have taken that route, as it was a process that has turned me into the manager I am today.
“You learn from your experiences – and you often learn more from the experiences that are not the best ones.”