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Chris Wilder: why letting the lifelong Blades fan leave was a bad move from Sheffield United

Sheffield United were at the mercy of a 5-0 shellacking by Leicester City on Sunday – their worst league loss since April 2000. The day before the match brought confirmation of the departure of Chris Wilder from the helm, a man who had taken them from League One and peaked incredibly with a top-10 finish while challenging for Europe in the Premier League.

Mathematically, the Blades (14 points) are still in the running to survive the drop. But, with nine games remaining, which is already one more than Brighton & Hove Albion (29) and Newcastle (28) in 16th and 17th respectively, there is no hope. With the players playing for nothing, except perhaps those players out of a contract this summer, the immediate outlook is glaringly bleak.

Anyone who has watched a team with an eerily similar fate as that of Sheffield United in any season of football, in any league, will know what’s coming. Sunday’s result was only the start of it. It was Norwich City last season and Huddersfield Town the one preceding that. Combined, those two teams scored eight goals and won just two points – both by Huddersfield – conceding 49 goals in the process from game week 29 onwards. Those supporters that turned up to the games, or watched on from home, have some high-functioning mental resilience, or an affinity for self-torture.

You can only imagine what is happening – and about to happen – at Sheffield United this season will be no different. And it remains to be seen whether allowing Wilder to depart was a smart move. Maybe it wasn’t the club’s choice?

Following the club’s 17th consecutive loss to start the season – a Premier League record maybe not mentioned much at Bramall Lane – Wilder managed seven wins from the 14 until his departure, including reaching the quarter-final stage of the FA Cup. It was a surprise to everyone to see him still on the sidelines in match week 18.

The fact he stayed this long points to the faith, or maybe the inability to find a suitable replacement, the higher powers had in Wilder. However, tensions had been developing long before his departure. At the start of their tenure in the top-flight, with the size and stature of the club increasing following their promotion, a switch to a ‘director of football’ approach was mooted by those above the manager. This certainly was not of favour to Wilder, who hinted as much in his first press conference with Prince Abdullah in 2019.

“I am a hands-on manager and anything done to improve the club, I am open to. But my style is: I have the big decisions to make. I am sure Prince Abdullah will let me get on with my job.”

Blunted progression on a new first-team building was also a source of frustration for Wilder, who took this, along with a lack of winter investment, as too laissez-faire from Prince Abdullah. Would any January signings have inspired a miracle road to safety? Most likely not with the club on a mere two points at the turn of the year. But it would have indicated to a board with the future in mind had they looked to acquire talent to help their case in the Championship next season.

As players slowly trickled back from the rehab room, we were reminded of Wilder’s prowess as a manager. And it is why he won’t be unemployed for an overtly long time. There are most likely suitors already making contact.

Considering their injuries this season, and the inability of a club as small as United to acquire much depth, it is understandable why the Blades are in the position they are. Their form since January the 1st also points to why it may have been the right move to invest in Wilder through January investments.

United are not the first to let a young, talented and highly revered manager leave not even two seasons after said manager had won promotion following a whole club makeover. Bournemouth are currently struggling to make the play-off places after departing with Eddie Howe’s company. While Daniel Farke’s ex-team Norwich City are in a position to run away with the Championship title much as they did under his management. But will that last when it didn’t with Farke?

Faith is key for stability and that much is evident. Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino did not enjoy their first seasons at their respective ‘big six’ clubs. Fortunately, due to their distinctly dazzling resumés, they were allowed to continue and the project at each of their clubs have brought many fruits.

The less wealthy nature of ‘smaller’ clubs restricts this ability. But maybe putting a little more money into Wilder, who knows the club better than anyone as a former player and ball-boy, would have been wiser than initiating an entirely brand new project.

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