At the time of writing, a video of Chris Wilder talking about Jamie Vardy’s career is being both widely circulated on social media and applauded as it goes. People really do like listening to Wilder. Genuinely. What he says resonates with them in a way that the hollow, self-serving rhetoric of many of his peers does not. His is a candid and sincere voice, full of hard-earned credibility.
And that’s partly why he’s my Manager of the Year.
This is brilliant from Chris Wilder on Jamie Vardy. pic.twitter.com/mWv2e4mFpoJuly 16, 2020
That won’t be a surprise to regular readers of this column, because the virtues of Wilder’s Sheffield United team have been described on more than one occasion. But, much like the debate surrounding Footballer of the Year, the managerial award has many candidates and – potentially – several worthy winners.
Jurgen Klopp has achieved wonderful things with Liverpool, that goes without saying. With Marcelo Bielsa having returned Leeds United to the Premier League, he should really be in the conversation too. And, while it partly depended upon the controversial end to the League One season, Gareth Ainsworth hauling Wycombe Wanderers into the Championship is, on the basis of where the club was just a few years ago, little short of a sporting miracle.
But Wilder remains head of that list and for a few reasons. First, the obvious: no matter where his Sheffield United finish the season and whether that entitles them to European football or not, theirs has been a miraculous eleven months. Because of the results achieved, because of the football played, and because of the many reclamation projects at this team’s heart.
In a way, United benefitted from earning their promotion in the same year as Norwich City and Aston Villa, because – inevitably – they’ve remained entwined with those teams ever since. It’s a comparison which has flattered Wilder. Villa have shown that heavy spending is no guarantee of security, while Norwich – who were certainly the more celebrated of the three teams upon their arrival – have shown that a bright manager and a clever scouting model isn’t enough either, not even in concert.
It characterises the achievement well, demonstrating the balance that had to be struck for a side like Sheffield United to perform as they have. The step up between the Football League and Premier League involves all sorts of adjustments, including but not limited to a squad’s technical evolution, its reconditioning to suit a more challenging environment and its psychological growth to cope with the range of new conditions. Which is to say nothing of the importance of good recruitment, opposition analysis and a side’s ability to learn from a new range of experiences.
The difference between the three head coaches who gained promotion, then, is that while Daniel Farke and Dean Smith were successful in some of those areas, Wilder – and his assistant Alan Knill – were accomplished and effective in all of them. That’s very rare; it’s why teams that bounce into the Premier League and make a true impact in their first season tend to be remembered.
For Wilder specifically, though, it’s only one part of his candidacy. From a broader perspective, his personal success is very powerful in what it preaches and the assumptions that it continues to disprove. His non-league to Premier League story is well-told, of course, but its significance probably isn’t yet fully understood.
Consider it from the angle of what his achievements might mean to those coaches currently in the National League, or at the levels below. What does it mean that he outcoached Frank Lampard home and away this season, or that his side humiliated Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham at Bramall Lane? Perhaps it’s a future opportunity for a developing coach who, without this example, might have been overlooked. Maybe it’s the end of the assumption that those from certain parts of the country and who speak with a particular accent are only capable of teaching one form of the game.
That’s just to scratch the surface. The true worth of those who forge new pathways tends only to be revealed in time. For now, though, very clearly, the sum of this accomplishment is greater than just an underdog finishing higher than their budget should have allowed.
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Seb Stafford-Bloor is a football writer at Tifo Football and member of the Football Writers' Association. He was formerly a regularly columnist for the FourFourTwo website, covering all aspects of the game, including tactical analysis, reaction pieces, longer-term trends and critiquing the increasingly shady business of football's financial side and authorities' decision-making.
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