Oxford face a trip to Sheffield this weekend for an FA Cup fixture against Sheffield United and it's a match that will have particular significance to Chris Wilder, Blades fan and former player. In light of this, Ian Rands, Sheffield United supporter and creator of A United View on Football, gives us his insight on Wilder the footballer from his time at Bramall Lane.
Chris Wilder will always be looked on positively by Blades fans, despite his injury hit time with United. After all, Blades fans always react positively to one of their own. A Blades supporter as a child, he had also been a ball boy at Bramall Lane, so it was a dream come true when he joined the Blades in August 1986. Released by Southampton, just before his nineteenth birthday, it was newly signed Saint Gerry Forrest who gave United boss (and former Rotherham team-mate) Billy McEwan the nudge to look at Wilder.
He was best described as a footballing right back, comfortable in possession, but no less tenacious in the tackle. He had good pace and demonstrated a willingness to attack. Given his age when he joined it took a few months to establish himself in the side. The more experienced Andy Barnsley was his main competitor for the right back slot, although I do recall Wilder filling in at left back as well during his time at United.
After United were relegated to the Third Division in the 1987-88 season, Wilder started to play a more regular role. After bouncing back to the Second Division at the first attempt things looked promising for Wilder, but a stress fracture ruled him out of much of the season which culminated in the Blades returning to the top flight after 14 years. He returned to the starting eleven for a game in January and then in mid March, for 3 games, before a 5-0 defeat at promotion rivals West Ham saw Stuart Slater run riot. Northern Ireland international Colin Hill was immediately re-instated at right back for the following game at home to Barnsley.
As injuries hit the squad hard, he returned for the final 3 games and just in time to play in the promotion clinching finale at Filbert Street. With club captain Paul Stancliffe injured and Colin Hill filling in at centre back, it was an opportunity to savour. A 5-2 victory in front of 8,000 or more ecstatic Blades fans and the League title missed on goal difference.
In the souvenir brochure the club produced to celebrate promotion Wilder's frustrations were clear:
"Although I was disappointed to be out of the team for most of the season, I was thrilled to bits to be in there for the final showdown. I know I had a bit of a nightmare at West Ham, but, other than that, I was well pleased with my performances. I don't think I let anyone down. After all, I was only on the losing side once."
Despite his involvement at the close of the promotion season, Dave Bassett clearly had doubts about Wilder's ability to perform at the top level. The signing of John Pemberton from Palace, primarily a right back, alongside the retention of Hill, limited Wilder's opportunities. He went on loan to Charlton in the October, but still found himself making appearances for United on his return. This was something that was going to continue over the next couple of seasons, with further loans back at Charlton and also at Leyton Orient and Rotherham, whom he signed for permanently in the summer of 1992.
Wilder can perhaps be judged unlucky that United had a relative embarrassment of riches at right back during his time at the club, with Kevin Gage joining alongside Pemberton and Hill. Certainly that injury really disrupted his early career and without it he might well have established himself properly in the right back position.
It was a major surprise when Wilder arrived back at the club in 1997. Nigel Spackman's shock resignation as manager and financial turmoil saw former player Steve Thompson take on a caretaker role, eventually staying on to the end of a season which saw United reach both the Play Off semi finals and the FA Cup semi final. At a time when finances had been stretched, Wilder was one of three deadline day signings for £150,000 from Bradford City. Thompson recognising the role his former United team-mate could lay in a busy run-in, as back up to attacking wing back Vas Borbokis. Despite playing the two league games prior to the semi final defeat to Newcastle, Wilder lost his place for Old Trafford and only played one game of the two-legged play off semi versus Sunderland.
Whilst Thomson recognised the need for Wilder in his squad, his successor in the Summer, Steve Bruce, made little use of Wilder and he eventually left in the Summer of 1999. I think Wilder has since admitted that he didn't make the best of his time with United, but that has done little to knock Unitedites' opinion of him.
There are many Blades fans following the progress of Wilder's managerial career and thus Oxford with great interest. A successful Oxford means the local lad and fan might return in a managerial capacity for a third spell at Bramall Lane. Whilst some are a little nervous about managers who have club connections, many would welcome him. His name has been mentioned frequently over the last 15 months, with each managerial change at Bramall Lane. Whilst he would have been considered an outsider 12 months ago, the departure of Micky Adams saw him heavily in the frame. However, you would think his lack of experience above League Two probably went against him.
Personally, I would be more than happy to see Oxford and Wilder gain promotion this season, but I hope if that was the case that we wouldn't be playing you next season. Not playing Oxford would mean we have had a promotion as well and Danny Wilson will still be in a job. Your manager would be safe from the Blades' clutches............for a little while longer.
Ian Rands (@unitedite)