On Chris Wilder's appointment to the manager's position in 2016, Sheffield United fans were not particularly enthusiastic - the "Nah, nah, nah na, he's a Blade and he's a Blade" chant had been sung before at Neil Warnock and in the disastrous short reign of Micky Adams, and both had taken the club down. Four games in and Wilder's revamped team were stone bottom of League One with just one point, and the muttering began.
Many managers would have retreated into a wary defensive shell, hoping to grind out a few results and save their jobs. Wilder's response was to press ahead with his Risk and Reward style of play, key to which are his overlapping centre-halves. The back three operate with a central defensive kingpin, whilst his two defensive colleagues overload the flanks, (not at the same time!), creating an extra passing option. A midfield player will normally drop deep to provide cover if the move should break down. The Blades stormed to the First Division title with a record 100 points, and after a season acclimatising in the Championship, upset all calculations to gain automatic promotion to the Promised Land of the Premiership.
Wilder's managerial career started deep down in the grassroots of the game. At the beginning of the 2001 season, the Sharrow United football team, started by youth workers and young players at FURD (Football Unites, Racism Divides), and newly promoted to the first division of the Sheffield Regional Alliance Sunday League, were rewarded by being upgraded to one of the top pitches at the University of Sheffield's sports ground.
They played their first match of the new season in September 2001 and with 45 minutes to go before kick-off the Sharrow secretary, Kev Titterton, returned to the changing rooms after putting up the goal nets. He counted the players in their changing room - it didn't take long, as there were just three. One of the three consoled Kev - "Don't worry, they'll be here for 11 o'clock".
As usual, Kev had put the nets up alone, and as he carried the gear out to the pitch, he couldn't help but notice the Bradway FC players being put through a professional-style warm-up by their young manager. It was 9.45am.
As a lifelong Sheffield United fan, Kev easily recognised the Bradway boss, Chris Wilder, who had been one of Dave Bassett's boys that won promotion to the top division in 1990. A classy full-back from Arctic Monkey territory in the north of Sheffield, Wilder had signed schoolboy forms with Southampton as a young teenager. This was the Saints team of Matthew Le Tissier, Alan Shearer and the Wallace brothers, and a young Wilder was unable to dislodge the established right-back, Gerry Forrest. He returned to his home town in 1986, signing for Bassett's predecessor, Billy McEwan.
Bassett's long ball style of play was perhaps not suited to Wilder's more cultured approach, but he was a key member of the Blades squad that smashed their way to successive promotions, ending in a memorable 5-2 triumph at Leicester's Filbert Street in May 1990. This proved to be a career high: his reward was to be replaced by new buy John Pemberton and Wilder spent the last ten years of his playing career outside of the top flight.
Years later, in the summer of 2016, Dave Bassett was to richly repay both player and club by recommending his once-discarded full-back to the club's owners, moribund after five seasons in the third tier.
Bassett reckoned that both the Blades and Wilder were fundamentally working-class, and were a perfect fit. FURD CEO Simon Hyacinth remembers coming across Wilder at summer holiday kick-about friendlies on an inner city youth club pitch in Sheffield:
"Me and my mates - all black kids from the council flats in Sharrow, (later home to FURD protege Kyle Walker) - knew some white lads through attending Jordanthorpe School in the south of the city. We played blacks v whites, and Chris was often in the opposing team. It was of its time, but we all rubbed along fine".
Wilder has never lost this connection with his mates, and his working-class roots, and still catches public transport around the city.
Meanwhile, with the Premier League season looming, the Blades fans are holding their breath. Will Wilder and head coach Alan Knill continue with the style of play that has brought such great success, or will they opt for a safer, less adventurous option? The last, solitary, year in the top flight saw Neil Warnock targeting the games he felt the team could take points from, and attempt to keep the score down against the top six. It wasn't much fun following the Blades that season, eventually crashing out on the last day to Wigan. Warnock's sums didn't add up in the end, and he paid the price with the sack.
Risk and Reward Chris, Risk and Reward!