Injuries and fine margins add up to the end of Chris Wilder’s innovative Sheffield United era - Sue Smith

It is never nice to see a football manager lose his job, but it is even more sad when it is someone who cares passionately about his club and did so much to enhance last season’s Premier League.

Chris Wilder has left Sheffield United (Picture: David Klein/Sportimage)
Chris Wilder has left Sheffield United (Picture: David Klein/Sportimage)

The job Chris Wilder did as manager of Sheffield United did not start last season of course, it was in League One five years ago, but in 2019-20 he showed his innovative tactics could work at the highest level.

Like most people, I really enjoy the way he had the Blades playing, with their overlapping centre-backs and overloads out wide.

One of the things that stuck with me the most, though, was his tough approach to Dean Henderson, calling the goalkeeper out for an error which cost his side a point at home to Liverpool, and the way the youngster responded.

Turning point - Sheffield United's John Egan reacts after getting sent off against Aston Villa back in September (Picture: PA)

Sadly, the luck that was on Wilder’s side in taking the team to ninth in 2019-20 ran out this season.

Add in some transfers that just did not work, and you have a club heading for relegation and a manager out of work.

It just shows how fine the margins are beneath the top six or eight clubs in the Premier League.

Last season nine of their 14 victories came by a one-goal margin. Billy Sharp scored an 88th-minute equaliser at Bournemouth in the opening game, they beat Crystal Palace at home 1-0 the following weekend, and they were up and running.

John Fleck has been a big miss for much of the season for Sheffield United (Picture: Darren Staples/Sportimage)

Fast forward to this season and they conceded two poor goals in the first 10 minutes at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers, had John Egan harshly sent off in the first 15 minutes against Aston Villa, and conceded an 88th-minute winner to Leeds United in match three. The tone had been set.

United have suffered 14 defeats by the odd goal.

Once they got off to such a bad start, the knee injury Jack O’Connell picked up in October made it very hard to pull the situation back.

As one of the overlapping centre-backs, O’Connell was so important to the style of play and as we had already seen in the restarted 2019-20, so difficult to replace.

Chris Wilder got the best out of Sheffield United goalkeeper Dean Henderson (Picture: PA)

But it was not the only bad luck they suffered with injuries.

It was a bit of a shock to hear John Fleck had broken his back in the autumn, missing six matches when the season was still taking shape but only revealing it afterwards. He was another key figure the previous season.

We also found out later some players had Covid-19 in the summer, but we do not know how many or how badly it affected them.

Midfielder Sander Berge was signed last January to bring extra quality and was doing just that, so to have not had him since a freak injury in mid-December was massive too.

More recently, John Egan and Chris Basham have picked up injuries to totally ravage the defence which even had to do without Phil Jagielka last week thanks to a harsh red card.

But it has not all been about misfortune – there have been bad transfers this season too.

Aaron Ramsdale has been an unconvincing replacement for Henderson since that opening defeat to Wolves and though he has made some good saves recently, it has been too little, too late from the youngster.

Jayden Bogle has shown flashes of his potential at right wing-back but the team has needed more than flashes, and more than just potential.

Ethan Ampadu, on loan from Chelsea, has had his moments but there have been costly mistakes too.

But it is up front where the Blades have suffered most. The solidity Henderson and a settled back three brought last season allowed them to get away without a prolific centre-forward but neither Oliver Burke nor club record signing Rhian Brewster have been able to deliver the goals needed.

This season’s struggles only underline what a good job Wilder did last term. He is a top manager who should quickly be in demand elsewhere, it is just a shame he will not get the chance to put the wrongs of this season right.

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