Chris Wilder and Middlesbrough – The Right Fit

Chris Wilder is a man that thrives in turmoil.

This is a man that joined the now dissolved Halifax Town in the weeks following their relegation from the Football League in 2002 to find the club had no training ground, no kit, no pre-season friendlies arranged and barely any players on the books.

Undeterred by those challenges, and the constant threat of liquidation hanging over the clubs’ head, by 2006 Wilder was 10 minutes away from returning Halifax to the Football League until Guy Ipoua’s equaliser and Ryan Green’s eventual winner tipped the Conference play-off final in Hereford United’s favour.

In January of 2014, Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill joined Northampton Town, who were rock bottom of League 2.

By May of 2016, Wilder and Knill were celebrating topping the League 2 table with 99 points, no mean feat when you consider that the club had faced a winding-up order from Inland Revenue and had been unable to pay wages earlier in the same season.

At Sheffield United, Wilder’s “dream job” as a Blades fan, he and Knill found a club mired in League 1 where it was routinely noted that “the fans hate the players and the players hate the fans”.

Over the course of four years, Wilder earned two promotions before taking the Premier League by storm where the idea of European nights at Brammall Lane became more of a missed opportunity rather than a pipe dream.

The local lad who would regularly be spotted in Blades’ away ends when he could spare a day off is now considered a club legend.

Despite this knack for entering the eye of the storm and calming the waters, Chris Wilder isn’t a stereotypical firefighting manager. He’s a builder. He’s a manager that blends the old-school spirit of fight and effort with new wave ideas and values on playing football “the right way” to attempt to leave every club in a better place than he found it, both on and off the pitch.

It’s that ethos that made him the standout candidate for Steve Gibson and Kieran Scott when they made the decision to part ways with Neil Warnock.

From an outsider’s point of view it may have looked harsh to move the 72-year-old on with the team only four points outside the play-offs but a combination of consistent inconsistency, unrest among supporters and public displeasure at not fitting in with the club’s long-term plans called an end on Warnock’s time on Teesside.

Quite simply, for a club trying to create a new image and structure, Neil Warnock wasn’t the right fit.

Chris Wilder on the other hand feels like the right one.

While the current playing squad at Boro isn’t perfect, with imbalances that may hamper hopes of the new boss bursting straight onto the scene at the Riverside with his much vaunted overlapping centre-backs 5-3-2 system, it’s a squad that desperately needs to be allowed the opportunity to play football on the deck.

Boro’s strongest performances so far this season have been when they have been able to get the ball on the floor rather than chasing aimless long balls into the channel and Wilder has already spoken about wanting “good footballers who can dominate the ball and dominate possession”. He’ll find that in the likes of Martin Payero, Marcus Tavernier and Paddy McNair.

Wilder also finds a fan base that, while we haven’t had it as rough as some would like to make out, also desperately wants to see exciting, successful football after Jonny Woodgate’s doomed spell was the only thing separating the reigns of Tony Pulis and Warnock.

If Wilder, with the help of Knill, can replicate the style and efficiency his Sheffield United side had then we may finally get our just reward for tolerating plenty of simplistic, direct football over the years.

The Sheffield United team that secured promotion over Sky Sports darlings Leeds scored more than Bielsa’s side that year (78 to Leeds 73) and in their own promotion campaign (Leeds scored 77 when going up as champions). Last year’s top two Norwich and Watford only managed 75 and 63 respectively.

That didn’t come at the expense of the defence either, with United equalling Boro with just 41 goals conceded that year. No other team in the league conceded less than 50.

Having a solid, well organised defence is something Wilder and his coaching team must address quickly with poorly conceded goals and glaring mistakes being one of the main drawbacks of Warnock’s time.

That will be aided by Grant Hall and Dael Fry returning from injury. Boro actually already have one of the better defences in the league in terms of goals conceded with only the top 3, Millwall and Derby conceding less than the 19 that have gone against the Reds so far this season, but when they have conceded, they’ve usually been to poor efforts or through errors.

Hopefully that will make Wilder and Knill’s job in that area more about tweaking than having to completely overhaul the backline.

How the team operates in defence and attack under the new manager will depend on the system he chooses to employ.

Many fans will be expecting a rinse and repeat of the 5-3-2 used at Sheffield United with the outside centre-backs going forward to create mass overloads in the final third while much has been made of a brief training clip of Wilder addressing the team and being heard saying that the “attitude and the mindset is, we wanna go and fucking press”.

Those two things don’t particularly line up as Sheffield United actually chose to drop back and clog up the middle of the park and would only press high against teams that were particularly poor at passing out from the back, like Boro did against Peterborough and Barnsley recently.

There’s also the fact that more Championship teams are playing 3 at the back which could negate some of the benefits of Wilder’s Sheffield United game plan.

Also, unless he decides to recall Djed Spence and Hayden Coulson in January, the only senior player with true wing-back traits at the club is Marc Bola. However, we’ve seen both Tavernier and Isaiah Jones can do defensive work when called upon, while the likes of McNair, Fry and Dijksteel seem tailor-made for roles as overlapping centre-backs.

It may be that Wilder and Knill have a short-term plan to get the team through to January where they, along with Head of Football Kieran Scott, can address the imbalances in the squad to then revert to that tried and trusted method or they may have different ideas for what will get the best out of this team.

Wilder himself said during his press conference that “there’s all different ways of winning a football match so we’re not pigeonholed to playing in one way, we have to be versatile”.

Even at Sheffield United, they started out using a 4-4-2 because of the belief that Billy Sharp needed a partner up front, and that gradually evolved into the style and tactics that saw them finish 9th in the Premier League and which won Wilder the LMA Manager of the Year Award.

Wilder faces 8 games before the transfer window opens, 9 if you count his return to Brammall Lane on New Year’s Day, and 6 of those are against sides currently above his new team in the league table. When January does come, it will be the first transfer window that the 54-year-old will have experienced working with a Head of Football.

Wilder has repeatedly mentioned this week that he is excited and looking forward to working with Kieran Scott and that rumours that he demands control of all facets of club life are “nonsense”.

That he has taken the job is testament to this, as it’s clear now that Scott has influence and control at the club, something that seemed to unsettle Neil Warnock. It also helps that Wilder and Scott look like they both love a pint. They’ll be sound.

The former Oxford United manager’s ability to get premium performances from players with bargain price tags, especially at Sheffield United, will have been a a major talking point when Gibson and Scott discussed bringing a new man in.

John Fleck, Mark Duffy, Enda Stevens and David McGoldrick were all free transfers who became integral parts of Wilder’s promotion winning Blades team in the Championship with Stevens going on to play in all 38 Premier League games the following season.

Oliver Norwood, George Baldock, John Egan and John Lundstram were also brought to the club under Wilder’s watch for a combined total of around £7.1 million according to transfermarkt, with each of those players featuring at least 33 times in the Premier League in 18/19 and both Norwood and Baldock playing in all 38 games.

Working with Scott, likely with narrower parameters on targets, might be a blessing in disguise for Wilder because a significant factor in Sheffield United’s fall from grace were the terrible signings made in the 2019 transfer window.

Over £20 million was spent on Rhian Brewster who has only just scored his first goal for United, while the trio of Jayden Bogle, Max Lowe and Oliver Burke would struggle to break into this Boro team, and previous big money signings like Oli McBurnie and Lys Mousset didn’t come close to justifying the faith shown in them.

It was that disastrous season that saw Sheff U relegated on 23 points, 16 points from safety on the last day and winless until the 18th game of the season against Newcastle (LOL) that may worry some Boro fans.

It showed the uglier side of Wilder as a spiky character, in particular an exchange at Selhurst Park where he seemed to admit defeat and was overheard shouting “I can’t do this bollocks anymore”. It’s fair to question whether someone who has got it so wrong can ever get it right again.

Yet, Chris Wilder is a man that thrives in turmoil and this time, it isn’t the club he is now leading that is most at risk. It’s himself. He said in his in-house interview with the Boro media team that “the next fit was the most important one in my career personally” and he was right.

It’s why he hasn’t been snapped up sooner because those clubs with openings, the likes of Forest this autumn and West Brom last season, didn’t appeal as much as the chance to manage Middlesbrough did.

He knows that Steve Gibson will allow him time to implement his plans without the chairman getting an itchy trigger finger. Wilder knows there is a long-term plan here and that he will be able to work with Kieran Scott to impart that vision over a period of time.

As a man who likes to prides himself in achieving longevity at clubs having spent 6 years at both Halifax and Oxford and 5 in Sheffield, that should provide a good working environment.

He’s been able to bring Alan Knill with him, who is understood to be largely responsible for the tactical innovations at Sheffield United, and first team coach and former Head of Sport Science Matt Prestridge who will lead the inquiry into why this Boro side are suffering so many knocks and injuries.

Wilder is also a man who is desperate to “go again” after that nightmare ending at Brammall Lane with the “fire in the belly burning” to prove himself which he can do here.

It’s a cliche at this point but Boro are a Premier League team in everything but position when you look at the stadium, the facilities and the level of support managers receive from the chairman. This isn’t a repeat of Northampton, Halifax or even Sheffield United for Chris Wilder. He’s found a club that ticks all of his boxes and feels like the right fit.

It needed to be the right fit for Boro as well, not just the most recognisable name available, which some fans may have thought when news of the appointment was leaked on Saturday night.

They simply can’t afford to get this one wrong as they look to build foundations for the future and create a new-look Middlesbrough Football Club.

Wilder looks to fit in with the club values going forward, he’s committed to exciting the fans and he brings recent knowledge and know how of getting promotion and then competing in the Premier League.

As Wilder said though “Words are easy. We’ve got to go and win games of football to have success”. To do that consistently will take time. This is a long-term project for both the club and Wilder and it deserves patience and support from fans to.

The best way for Wilder to get that is clearly to win games of football and to rebuild Fortress Riverside, a now dilapidated mess from the Karanka days when teams were terrified into submission almost weekly. That starts in ten days time against Millwall.

It’s something that has peppered his multiple interviews and soundbites over the last couple of days, that desire to make the Riverside an intimidating place to come and as we’ve seen in the past, it doesn’t take much to make it a special place. Win a few games and win them playing something resembling football and it’ll be rocking.

That’s all we want from a manager. Someone who can win games, get the team in the right direction and representing the town well so that we can make memories together. Football should be fun. Chris Wilder seems like the right fit to make that happen.

Over to you, gaffer.

Photo Credits: Middlesbrough F.C., Yorkshire Post, Sheffield United F.C., The Athletic

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