From non-league to Premier League – Chris Wilder’s rise up English football inside ten years
They don’t make many like Chris Wilder these days.
The Sheffield lad has worked wonders at his hometown club Sheffield United – earning them promotion to the Premier League less than three years after taking charge when they were drifting in League One.
Saying that, United weren’t just drifting, they were in dire straights just before he arrived.
They finished 11th at the end of the 2015/16 season – arguably the club’s darkest days since they were relegated to the old Fourth Division in 1981.
Their final match of the campaign saw them lose 2-0 at home to Scunthorpe and the players took part in a ‘lap of shame’ after the dismal defeat. Big changes were needed.
And big changes came. Out went Nigel Adkins and in came Stocksbridge-born Wilder who was tasked with getting United back on track on a shoe-string budget.
It seemed an almost impossible task but as Wilder said in a recent interview with talkSPORT, “It’s not just about chucking a load of dough at it and signing players.”
Wilder is living proof that you don’t need to spend excessively to reach the Premier League.
The Blades have spent just over £12.4million on players since the beginning of the 2015/16 season.
Promotion to the top flight has also capped off an excellent personal journey for Wilder that has seen him go from non-league to Premier League inside ten years with Oxford United and Northampton Town being the other main beneficiaries of Wilder’s work.
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He arrived at the Kassam Stadium in December 2008 with Oxford stuck in the rut of the Conference following their relegation out of the Football League in 2006.
The Yellows almost reached the play-offs that season but missed out on the final day.
In fact, they would have snuck in had they not received a five-point deduction for fielding an unregistered player in November 2008 – something that happened before Wilder was manager.
But Oxford meant business the season after and made a fast start.
They had to settle for a play-off spot after finishing third in the league but Wilder guided them to promotion back to the Football League with a 3-1 win over York City in the final at Wembley.
Wilder’s slide down the touchline of the Wembley turf when Alfie Potter slammed home the goal which sealed the victory is still talked about by the Oxford faithful now.
He stabilised Oxford in League Two although a disappointing end to the 2011/12 season saw them slip out of the play-off spots at the end of the season.
But by this stage, his work wasn’t going unnoticed and Wilder was snapped up by Northampton Town in January 2014.
He was joining a club fighting relegation in League Two so it was seen as a strange move.
But after keeping the Cobblers in the division, Wilder began to get a tune out of the players.
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Northampton finished in a stable twelfth the following year – pipping Wilder’s former club Oxford United on goal difference.
And then Wilder was faced with a new kind of test early in the 2015/16 campaign.
In October 2015, HM Revenue and Customs came knocking at Sixfields Stadium with a winding up petition over unpaid taxes.
With so much uncertainty around the club and the huge debts it had managed to rack up for the construction of their stadium, it would have been no surprise to see the Wilder wheels come off.
That’s not what happened.
Northampton went on to win the league with 99 points and they were in League One – Oxford claiming the other automatic promotion spot incidentally.
But the joy at Northampton soon turned to disappointment as Wilder’s boyhood club came calling.
There was an almighty task awaiting the man who took the job but this was an offer Wilder simply couldn’t refuse.
In the beginning, it looked like Wilder had made a mistake as he failed to win in his first five matches in charge.
Wilder finally broke his duck in August 2016 with a 2-1 win at home to Oxford United. You couldn’t write it!
Now things were starting to fall into place and the Blades ended up winning League One with a brilliant haul of 100 points.
Speaking about their promotion to the second tier, Wilder told talkSPORT: “We had to reconnect with the supporters and find a style that was suited to the division.”
“We wanted to carry that into the Championship. We never changed our approach.
“We gave ourselves an opportunity to win every game of football by the character and the attitude of the players.
“The journey started with the likes of [Chris] Basham, [John] Fleck, Enda Stevens, Jacko [Jack O’Connell], and Billy Sharp.”
So these shrewd signings have been key in aiding Sheffield United’s recent success but what’s the manager’s biggest strength?
Ben Meakin of Blades Pod – The Sheffield United Podcast, said: “Possibly his ruthlessness.
“I think he’s said in the past that he’s loyal but not sentimental – all players have to earn the shirt and if they don’t, they won’t play – no matter what their reputation is.
“It’s played a big role in forging a strong team spirit and squad harmony – there are no passengers.”
And that has seen the Blades beat the likes of Leeds United to automatic promotion to the big time this season.
As for 2019/20, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done if United are to stay up, make no bones about that.
But they’ve got a manager who’s ready to upset the form book once more.