Sheffield United: Chris Wilder's connection with fans & 'surreal' life in Premier League

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Sheffield United Chris Wilder praises his side's 'full-blooded & committed' performance

Perched outside a cafe on Shoreham Street, Anthony is sipping on a brew to calm his nerves ahead of Sheffield United's first home game in the Premier League in 12 years.

Like many Blades fans, he thought this day might never come. Six years in League One can suck the last vestiges of positivity out of anyone.

Now, though, he feels optimistic and the reason is etched on his left hand where a Chris Wilder tattoo resides.

"The best manager we've ever had," says Anthony, who has been watching his team for 50-plus years.

Fan with Chris Wilder tattoos
Sheffield United fan Anthony attended the win over Crystal Palace, sporting a tattoo of Chris Wilder's face on his fist

Few supporters will go to the same lengths to demonstrate their faith in the Sheffield United manager, but many feel the same way.

Wilder, a Sheffield United fan, is that rare thing in football management, brilliantly combining capability with relatability.

Both traits were evident after the 51-year-old engineered a win over Crystal Palace on Sunday, which left Bramall Lane bouncing.

And the elevated mood is making even the most pessimistic supporter reassess what might be possible.

As James, who flew back from Australia in part to watch the Blades this season, says: "It's all a bit surreal."

'Going through the mill'

When Wilder says "I know more than anybody what these supporters have been through" it is a genuine sentiment from a manager who was a former ballboy and player at the club.

"To be a Sheffield United supporter, you're not a glory hunter and days like today probably seemed a million miles off," he adds.

That was certainly the case when Bramall Lane was engulfed in a wave of toxicity as they sank into League One at the back end of the 2010-11 season. The only relief was the emergence of a young Harry Maguire, who made his Blades debut.

There was a play-off final defeat on penalties by Huddersfield in 2012 and worse was to come.

Sheffield United fans
Sheffield United fans Anna (left, with her mother) have experienced many high and lows following the Blades

"I remember losing to Yeovil Town in a play-off semi-final in 2013 and I couldn't believe it," says Anna, who has been an occasional season ticket holder since she was a child.

"I'm not an arrogant supporter, and we were in League One because we deserved to be, but we were losing to Bury, Crewe or Scunthorpe - they were a real bogey team for us.

"I just remember thinking: how has that happened?"

The answers were numerous.

"We had a succession of poorly-chosen managers such as David Weir, who was unproven. Or ones who were not up to the job, like Micky Adams and Nigel Adkins," she says.

"A lot of players didn't seem to care, they were picking up a wage packet without playing particularly well and they had no connection with fans whatsoever. I remember the lap of honour for the final game of the 2015-16 season when Adkins was in charge and there were only a few hundred people left to greet the players.

"I thought we'd be down there forever - we'd had our glory days, as it were - and then it all changed when Chris Wilder came in."

Why Wilder connects with fans

Chris Wilder
Chris Wilder has been Sheffield United manager since May 2016

The difference with Wilder, who was appointed in May 2016 and has delivered two promotions in three seasons, is that he cares - and has always cared.

Further, he makes the players care, and if they don't they are shipped out.

Previously described as "journeymen", Wilder has rewarded a band of British and Irish players who took the club to the Premier League by sticking with them in the first two games this season.

Even those who have come in, such as record signing Oli McBurnie, have had to learn quickly what it's like to be a Wilder player - and they all celebrated with fans when the final whistle blew on Sunday.

The noise that greeted the players as they held on for their first win of the season underlined the bond that has formed.

"Late on, Oli was running down the channels, getting booted all over the place, and was interacting with the supporters," Wilder said. "It's not just me and [fellow Sheffield United fan and forward] Billy Sharp. These boys are desperate to do well for themselves but more importantly, the football club.

"They have to be like that to play for us.

"This is definitely a day for our supporters to enjoy and stick in the memory bank because they have been through the mill.

"We're not winning Premier Leagues, but this club can go anywhere at any stage and it has done. Hopefully we have pointed it in the right direction, the supporters have hopefully enjoyed today and seen what the club is all about."

Reassessing goals

Wilder is wise enough to know that bigger tests await, and also accepts that promoted teams often carry a momentum with them from their promotion season.

United have only lost one in 20 league games now, and the Sheffield United manager has won 77 league games in the last four seasons, second only to Manchester City's Pep Guardiola's 88 in the top four divisions.

It's an incredible record which has led to two promotions in three seasons, and excludes his days at former club Northampton Town where he won the League Two title.

But Wilder says: "We have to prove we belong in the Premier League."

As the sun shone on Bramall Lane and fans piled into the local pubs to discuss the victory over Roy Hodgson's side, there was a sense that finally, the pessimism of the last 12 years was lifting.

"The pessimism will end once we get 40 points," laughs Anna.

Sheffield United fans
James (right, pictured with his father Mike) hopes Chris Wilder is in charge of Sheffield United for 10 years

James adds: "It's only early days, and there will be tougher tests to come, but Palace and Bournemouth are well established teams, and we've earned the four points we've got.

"What it tells me is that we have nothing to fear from the teams in the bottom half of the division. We can do well if we all stick together.

"We're all pessimists at heart, but if Wilder is in charge for 10 years who knows where we might end up."

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