The first time I came across Chris Wilder was when he was appointed as Oxford United manager in December 2008 with the club languishing in the bottom half of the Conference National. The U’s had been through a tumultuous time having been relegated on the last day of the 2006 season, they lost in the play-off semi-finals in their first season in the Conference and then struggled to make an impact despite Jim Smith stepping down and allowing Darren Patterson to take over.
Wilder’s impact at Oxford was immediate as he took the team from the bottom half of the table to within four points of a play-off spot (Oxford were docked 3 points for playing an unregistered player). In the off season Wilder proved that he was able to make brave decisions regarding releasing players as both Chris Wilmott and Barry Quinn were not offered new contracts.
With his own squad of players in place Oxford started the next season strongly and by mid-season they were five points clear at the top of the table. A loss of form in March and April allowed a brilliant Stevenage Borough side to romp to the title with 99 points with Oxford finishing 3rd on 86.
The dreaded play-offs were handled brilliantly by a tactically astute Wilder, drawing the first leg against Rushden & Diamonds away 1-1 and then finishing the job at home with a 2-0 win as Matt Green and top scorer James Constable (22 for the season) grabbed the goals.
Both those players would be on target in the play-off final as Oxford ran out 3-1 winners against an impressive York City, managed by former Oxford forward Martin Foyle. When Alfie Potter slotted home Oxford’s third in injury time, Wilder sprinted down the touch line in delight. He had had his critics from an overly expectant fanbase but was able to win the big games when it mattered, something that no other Oxford manager of recent past had managed.
He led Oxford back into the League with a decent mid table finish and followed this up with a 9th place finish in 2011-12. Wilder again came under fire from some sections of the Oxford support as the team let a play-off position slip away due to a late season drop in form, nevertheless, he remained in charge for the start of the 202-13 campaign. Oxford missed the play-offs again the following season yet Wilder continued into 2013-14 before confirming that he had resigned to join League Two’s relegation threatened Northampton Town!
In typical fashion Wilder had an immediate impact steering The Clarets clear of relegation, with them finishing three points clear of 23rd placed Bristol Rovers! His second season at the club brought a season of consolidation that barely even hinted at what was to come for 2015-16!
Northampton started the season with two wins but then struggled over the next few games to find consistency. After a 1-0 win against his old club Oxford on the 12th September Wilder’s charges only lost twice more for the rest of the season, going completely unbeaten from 28th December onwards, as the stormed to the League Two title. Wilder enjoyed the success yet when Sheffield United cam calling he couldn’t resist joining the club he support as a kid and where he started his professional career.
Sheffield United was by far the biggest club and possibly challenge that Wilder had taken on. There were a few voices of discontent regarding his appointment on social media and a poor start to the season compounded their criticism yet again, though, it would be a match against his old club Oxford that turn it all around!
The match against the U’s on the 27th of August followed a four match run without a win and only one point from 12. The match itself was a close affair yet The Blades won through 2-1 to get their first three points of the season. After this, however, there was no looking back as United went unbeaten in 15 games until a late November loss at home to Walsall. Wilder steady the ship and his side went on an 6 match winning run helped by the goal scoring prowess of Billy Sharp who was having the season of his life! Named Captain by Wilder at the start of the campaign, the Sheffield born striker would finish as the divisions top scorer with 30 goals to lead his home town club to promotion!
United again slipped up against Walsall with a 4-1 defeat at the Bescott before a draw with Gillingham and a 2-0 home defeat by Fleetwood completed a poor couple of week at the end of January. United then turned on the style, seemingly finding another gear, as they remained unbeaten for the rest of the season.
On April 8th Blades fans packed the away end at Northampton to watch their team seal promotion with five games to spare in a tightly contested 2-1 victory. Wilder had achieved what managers such as Nigel Clough and Nigel Adkins could not and got Sheffield United back into the Championship! No one at Northampton, not even the home fans, could begrudge Wilder his success. His record speaks for itself having taken Oxford out of the Conference back into League Two, Northampton out of League Two up into League One and now Sheffield United from League One to the Championship! Given time and the right resources we may well see this talented manager take the Blades back to English football’s top division but for now United fans can just enjoy their summer knowing that, next season, they have the Steel City derby to look forward to in the Championship!
word James Richards