Chris Wilder was already “four or five” drinks in when the warning arrived from League Managers’ Association chairman Howard Wilkinson. It was too late.
On a shortlist for the Manager of the Year award that included Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino, Wilder had assumed he was safe to enjoy himself. “I always remember getting a phone call from Howard Wilkinson on the train down to the LMA awards and he said ‘don’t have too much to drink’. The only problem was that it was too late! I think we were four or five in and we didn’t stop, so it was a bit of a blur,” said Wilder.
That was four years ago after Wilder had guided Sheffield United to promotion to the Premier League. Over the last 10 years, the only English winners have been the 55-year-old and Eddie Howe, and over the past five years only three men have been named Manager of the Year – Klopp twice, Guardiola twice and Wilder.
“I’m very proud of that achievement. You look at the names who have won it and it’s amazing,” said Wilder. “In a weird way, the biggest achievement was actually the following year when we finished ninth in the Premier League.”
While Guardiola and Klopp have continued to dominate English football, and Howe has managed to reinvigorate his career at Newcastle United, Wilder has been out of work for four months after being sacked by Championship club Middlesbrough.
He is aware that 11 League games at the start of this season with Boro will currently be more relevant to some than the previous 900-plus of his managerial career – which included three titles, five promotions, eight trophies and ninth place in the Premier League – at Alfreton Town, Halifax Town, Oxford United, Northampton Town and his boyhood club Sheffield United.
“I’m a much better manager now than the one who won the LMA,” said Wilder. “Miles better, there’s no way I can’t be. I’ve got people like Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Gareth Southgate as references on my CV. I’ve built and forged relationships with some top operators, who I like to think recognise the work I’ve done.
“At the moment, I know some people will want to judge me on the last 11 [League] games that I managed and they will just say ‘well he lost five, drew four and only won two’ without looking into it at all because it bores them.
“But I also know that after a while other people will start to look at my body of work again and Eddie Howe, whose last job before Newcastle ended with a relegation, is probably the best example of that now.”
Wilder believes that a narrative has been built of him being a difficult character, who is better managing his players and staff than the relationships with his employers.
“We do all get pigeonholed and mine is probably as a northerner in a tracksuit who’s aggressive,” said Wilder, “By the way, Mikel Arteta is quite aggressive, Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel both wear tracksuits and they’re quite aggressive. They don’t take any prisoners.”
Wilder left the tracksuit at home for our two-hour meeting in central London, preferring a black roll neck sweater, designer jeans and black boots, and spent half-an-hour being told where to stand and look for photographs. On his combative image, Wilder continued: “The second season in the Premier League with Sheffield United became difficult and, with it being my club, I probably took on too much. At Middlesbrough, the summer transfer window didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but I never had an issue with Steve Gibson and I’d like to think if people did their homework on me then they would find out what I’m really like.
“It’s the first time in 20 years I’ve had my contract terminated. I think I’d have been sacked a few more times if I was that difficult to work with! I want things done right and I want to win, that’s all.”
In Wilder’s opinion, those at the top of English football for the past decade – Guardiola, Klopp, Antonio Conte, Tuchel and now Arteta – have all been managers of their football clubs, despite the trend for chairmen and chief executives to try to seek out head coaches.
Wilder sees himself as a manager, but that is not to say he cannot coach or innovate – best proven by his overlapping centre-backs at Sheffield United, who had opponents scratching their heads.
“It wasn’t a chequebook era at Sheffield United,” said Wilder. “It was about improving players. We took players who weren’t getting a game and developed them, and played a system as well.
“We started off with 4-4-2, but we quickly realised that we needed to go to three at the back. I’ve always played different types of football and different formations at the clubs I’ve been at. Primarily to win.
“We wanted to break teams down and overload teams, whether it was wide or whether it was central. The two wide centre backs were comfortable on the ball and wanted to get forwards, so we came up with something that allowed them to and I like to think it was really effective.”
Asked if he thinks people see him as a tactician, Wilder replied: “No.” And is that fair? “No, it’s not. You can’t go to Manchester United [with Middlesbrough] and get a result. You can’t beat Tottenham and not be tactically astute. You can’t go into the Premier League [with Sheffield United] without knowing what to do, what to change and how to change it.”
Wilder was accused of “dinosaur management” by one radio host for saying goalkeeper Dean Henderson, who spent two seasons on loan at Sheffield United, had to do “a bit better” after gifting Liverpool a winning goal.
Henderson later called on the club to build a statue of Wilder, which supports the former right-back’s claim that he knew exactly what he was doing.
“He let one through his legs, live on Sky, and he wanted to play for Manchester United and he wanted to play for England,” said Wilder. “Of course, I wouldn’t have done that to all the lads, but I knew the boy.
“Is it any different to what Guardiola did to Kalvin Phillips about his fitness the other week? Of course it isn’t, but he knows the boy. You know the players who can take it.”
'It's quite lazy to say that I took my eye off the ball'
Wilder was open enough to admit that he should have handled speculation linking him with the Burnley job while he was in charge of Middlesbrough better, but described suggestions he took his eye off the ball as “bull----”.
“Looking back, I should have shut it down, I accept that,” said Wilder.
“But I think it’s quite lazy to say that I took my eye off the ball or anything like that. It’s bull----. Ask those players if I took my foot off the gas in pre-season or in that changing room. We had a difficult summer window, but in my opinion the team was playing OK and everything was telling me results would turn.
“Michael Carrick will get recognition for the job he is doing now and quite rightly so. But I think we left the team in a good place for him. We had a brilliant Cup run last season, beating Man United and Tottenham and, a bit like Michael got 25 points in his first 12 games, we took 24 points from our first 12 games.”
Having insisted on making the journey down to London to see me, rather than the other way round, Wilder sat with a notebook of pre-prepared facts and figures he did not want to forget.
One of those was that his was the eighth Championship sacking after just 11 League games. But Wilder is optimistic there will be years and seasons in front of him in management that rival or better than one that earned him his LMA award.
“Relatively speaking, I’m delighted with the career I’ve had so far,” he said. “But my hunger is as big as it’s ever been. I remember someone once saying to me ‘just bank it’ about being sacked. But, no, I want to win and once you’ve had a taste of the Premier League, you want it badly – even if it means some hard work to get back there.”