Everyone loves a plucky underdog don’t they.
The small-time hero taking on the top dogs and giving them a bloodied nose. In football, these fairy tales usually come in the form of the FA Cup.
In recent times you think of Wigan Athletic, Portsmouth and maybe even Hull City ,who so nearly defeated Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal to extend their heartbreak. But most underdog stories eventually end in disappointment and despair. Relegation and financial woe is the translation into the football world.
Chris Wilder, however, is different. There is no luck involved. No aligning of the stars. No sequence of opposition mistakes or a star player to rely upon through a seven-game cup run.
The Sheffield United boss could finally be the English manager that many believed his predecessor’s to be.
Following United’s 3-0 victory over Chelsea at the weekend – where Wilder’s side totally outclassed and outmaneuvered Lampard’s men – the Blades have now gone 61 games since they last lost a match they were winning at half-time.
53 of those games have resulted in a victory for the Steel City side in a run that stretches back to the summer of 2016.
Remember, there is no luck involved here. Wilder’s personal record extends to his time at Northampton Town and takes the total number of games up to 83. Yes, 83.
Such resilience, self-belief and determination are evident throughout his teams and are a symptom of what makes the Yorkshireman so successful.
Speaking to The Athletic, former Sheffield United defender Richard Stearman pointed towards Wilder’s unbreakable mentality being key to his triumphs.
“He never wants to take a backwards step,” Stearman noted. “He wants to try and win games. Whether that costs him points, he won’t change that mindset. He is very aggressive in the pursuit of points. He makes sure the players know that.”
However, Wilder is not reckless in his pursuit of glory. He marries his resilient, never say die nature with alluring pragmatism. Having predominantly used a 3-4-1-2 formation throughout United’s promotion-winning campaign last season, Wilder changed to a 3-5-2 when playing against Premier League opposition.
He recognised that the luxury of playing a ‘number 10’ just behind two strikers was a pleasure he could ill afford to indulge in against the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City.
The extra man in midfield has allowed his side to control possession better, a necessity when you have someone with the passing range that Oliver Norwood possesses at your disposal.
Just as he does the little things right, Wilder expects his players to as well.
January signing Sander Berge believes his new manager has got the fundamentals finalised like a traditional English gaffer.
“I have mostly had Dutch or German managers and the team is more 18-year-olds. Here, this is more the English way of doing things.” The former Genk midfielder told The Athletic. “This team is more built on passion and enthusiasm and we’re so good at all the basics, like defending, set pieces and keeping our structure.”
But to label Wilder as simply an old school coach with old school tactics, who focuses on the basics would be doing him a grave disservice. He has fused together the typical grit, strength of character and hard work that his British precursors have founded their success off with more European flair, invention and style. The best of both.
This is a manager who beat Pep Guardiola to the LMA Manager of the Year award last season for his tactical innovation.
Wilder’s unique system of overlapping centre-backs has made Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell household names and has earned the top division’s newcomers a host of admiring onlookers.
The former Alfreton Town manager’s journey from non-league football to a potential place in Europe is refreshing in an era of instant success and multi-million-pound signings.
If Wilder’s band of mainly British men can carry him across the continent, then he’ll be sure to have the silent support of the nation. No matter who their allegiance belongs to.
Whether the Sheffield United boss can achieve the longevity that sets apart the great from the good is set to be seen, but you’d be a brave individual to bet against it. Chris Wilder is a manager who’s surely destined for the top.