When Chris Wilder was growing up, he wanted to play for Sheffield United in the old First Division — and he managed to make it happen. It didn’t last that long, though.
Despite being technically good enough and possessing the right attitude, he wasn’t quick enough for the top level. ‘I kept fighting off the next replacement the manager brought in,’ Wilder said earlier this year. ‘There were about 23 of them and eventually one of them got me. I had to leave, drop down and build a career somewhere else. It was hard but it happens.’
It wasn’t the first time football had kicked sand in Wilder’s face. As a teenager, he moved from Yorkshire to Southampton and spent four years at their academy. He loved it but was released without playing a first-team game.
Chris Wilder and Jurgen Klopp have been involved in a row regarding five substitutions
Klopp wants to see a return of the rule so he can keep his squad healthy during the season
‘I was surplus to requirements, not good enough,’ he recalled. ‘I have kept that inside me to help me with some of the difficulties I have had as a manager.’
Some of those difficulties he referred to are well known while others are not. As a young manager at Halifax, Wilder often had nowhere for his players to train. Once they were kicked off a park by someone from the council. Another time, they turned up for their slot to find the pitch had been appropriated for a dog show.
It’s funny now but it wasn’t at the time and this background of struggle and of desperate desire to improve and progress is still relevant because it provides some context to a very public argument with Jurgen Klopp of Liverpool that began a couple of weeks ago and is still rumbling on.
The row is about five substitutions and whether the Premier League should allow them during this congested season. Klopp, beset by injuries as he tries to defend a league title, wants them while Wilder, trying to compete against clubs with bigger squads, does not.
Wilder is hoping it stays as it is so his team can compete better against the bigger squads
But it’s actually about much more than that. It’s about big versus small. It’s about a hierarchy and different clubs’ place in it. It’s about standing up for what you believe and, of course, it’s about looking after yourself. And this is the nub of it. Klopp says he worries about the welfare of all players and accuses Wilder of being selfish. And he is absolutely right. Wilder is being selfish. Why on earth wouldn’t he be?
Wilder and other managers of his current standing are trying to survive in an environment that was not constructed with them in mind. The Premier League is what it says on its label. It’s about the best teams in the country, the clubs with the money and the history, and the power that comes with all of that.
The rest of them — those just scrambling to remain as part of the club every season — are making up the numbers.
Wilder is trying to survive in a Premier League environment that was not created for him
Wilder was a better player than he would have you believe but he was always a scrapper, too. His managerial c.v. tells you that. Alfreton, Halifax, Oxford, Northampton, Sheffield United. In Australia, they call that doing the hard yards and Wilder didn’t do them to throw it all away now by bowing down to the glitterati.
Wilder is a talented, honest manager and we hope he will be around for years to come. His team were brilliant last season, but have not been so far this time. They are bottom of the table and all that Wilder has built at Bramall Lane is in danger of slipping through his fingers.
Increasing the number of allowed substitutions plays into the hands of clubs like Liverpool. Wilder knows this and would be mad to play along.
He has come too far and travelled too hard a road to stop punching upwards. And Klopp of all people will know this because there was a time in Germany when he was doing exactly that, too.
Lack of social distancing in stadiums?
Watching footage of supporters returning to EFL stadiums last Wednesday was moving. It felt like a big step towards the light.
Equally it was mildly disconcerting to see fans sitting far too close to each other in the one open stand at Reading on Saturday.
Just a teething problem, I am sure, but football has come too far on this issue to give the Government an excuse to row back now.
It appeared Reading fans were sitting way too close to each other in the stands on Saturday
Tired old talk of European Super League
Discussions are due to take place at UEFA about a revamp of the Champions League.
With Europe’s top clubs wanting the chance to play each other more regularly in an expanded group stage, the objective is clear.
More games, more TV interest and greater commercial pull. In other words, more money.
It is the latest attempt to deliver a European Super League by the back door and nobody should be surprised.
But just one question: what happened to worrying about all those exhausted players?
Discussions are due to take place at UEFA about a revamp of the Champions League again
The curse of dementia strikes again
Frank Wignall was desperate to establish himself as an England player ahead of the 1966 World Cup but broke his leg three times in the space of a couple of seasons. He wondered if he was trying too hard.
Half a century on and Wignall, 81, is dealing with another curse — dementia.
The former Everton, Nottingham Forest, Wolves and Derby forward has tackled the disease privately but his daughter has now been moved to join Dawn Astle’s campaign for change.
Each passing week tells us more about the relentless spread of this disease.
It is heartening to know that sufferers no longer wish to struggle in silence.