Most Sheffield United fans knew a second season in the Premier League would be the equivalent of a difficult second album – but now the club has lost its front man and its beating heart.
Chris Wilder restored pride to a club which had unravelled in League One and took them to the Premier League in the space of three seasons.
A Blades ballboy, player and then its leader, he brought entertaining football to a new army of fans, and still caught the bus to go down the pub with his mates.
In a global league, he was Sheffield United’s everyman.
Yet he is also a winner, unwilling to listen to excuses, and fiercely determined to build on his successes.
So despite a wretched second season, where relegation seems almost certain, he still wanted more backing from owner Prince Abdullah, which he feels never arrived. Once the pair disagreed about transfers and a director of football, a cordial – but never strong – relationship disintegrated.
Add to that, a campaign where the Blades have only won four times, and it was clear that the path forward would be difficult.
But when news broke on Friday morning that Wilder would be leaving, it still came as a shock to many heartbroken fans, who will now be questioning what the future looks like at Bramall Lane after one of the greatest periods in the club’s history.
How Wilder lifted Blades back to business
In his first season in charge, Wilder turned a club which had finished 11th in League One the previous campaign into champions of the third tier. After a 10th-placed finish in the Championship the following season, the Blades went up once again.
Two promotions in three seasons was a fantastic return, but he was not done there. Remarkably, a first season in the Premier League since 2006-07 saw them challenging for Europe before they finished ninth.
A team with no superstars, and drawn largely from the lower leagues, made Sheffield United one of the surprises of the season.
They took four points from each of Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham, showing the club could mix it with the big boys. Wilder’s overlapping centre-backs were praised by the likes of Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola.
This was the kind of ride that no Blades fan had ever imagined. Wilder, it seemed, was building a club which could not only compete at the top but stay there.
Achieving that, however, led to differences of opinion among the club’s hierarchy and Sheffield United’s eventual downfall.
Tension behind the scenes?
The contrasts between Wilder and Prince Abdullah were perhaps clear from the outset.
Wilder’s appointment in 2016 came amid a dispute between then co-owners Prince Abdullah and Kevin McCabe, who had been a sole owner until 2013, when he sold 50% of his shares to the Saudi for £10m.
The pair fell out when McCabe suspected the Prince did not have the money he claimed and once their row ended up in the High Court, it was the Saudi businessman who would be king of Bramall Lane. But Wilder was McCabe’s man.
Wilder joined his new owner at their first press conference together in 2019 and said all the right things, but he hinted that he wanted to remain the top dog, as talk of a technical director surfaced.
“I am a hands-on manager and anything done to improve the club, I am open to,” he said. “But my style is: I have the big decisions to make. I am sure Prince Abdullah will let me get on with my job.”
That much appeared true after the club’s best league finish in 28 years last season, which led to Wilder being named League Manager of the year.
But as fans have since come to learn, maybe it was a season where everything fell perfectly into place. The current campaign has been a complete contrast.
The problems on the pitch
While the Blades were never prolific last term, their defence remained solid. But losing centre-back Jack O’Connell to injury and goalkeeper Dean Henderson, as his loan from Manchester United ended, did not help a poor start to the season.
Liverpool forward Rhian Brewster arrived in October and was supposed to give a struggling strike-force a boost, but the record £23.5m signing is yet to score.
Meanwhile, impressive midfielder Sander Berge was injured in December and John Lundstram’s form dipped after deciding not to sign a new deal.
In the end, it took 18 games for the club to earn a first Premier League win and, despite a brief upturn in results that gave fans a fleeting hope of survival, lousy form was matched by a breakdown in relations behind the scenes.
Players who had excelled in League One, the Championship and for one season in the Premier League now looked short on confidence. Wilder wanted to upgrade.
Was Wilder supported?
Problems came to a head when Wilder wanted a left-sided centre-back and a midfielder in the transfer window, but was told he could not sign anyone.
Prince Abdullah might point to the fact relegation already looked likely and, had shown his support over the last two seasons by sanctioning record deals for Brewster, Berge (£22m), Oliver McBurnie (£20m) and Lys Mousset (£10m). Of those, only Berge has been a success.
A working relationship had soured and the battle ground had been set. As the club’s relegation became accepted, attention turned towards Wilder’s future.
After two promotions in three seasons, logic would dictate he’d be the perfect man to lead them back to the Premier League.
The desire among most Blades fans was for him to stay, however, earlier this month, Wilder said talks about his future “weren’t happening”.
“That plan is determined by other people.,” he said.
Worry set in among fans. After one of the most successful periods in the club’s history, a future without Wilder was almost unthinkable.
But on Saturday night, the news was made official. Wilder had left the club by “mutual consent”.
“Being manager of Sheffield United has been a special journey and one I’ll never forget,” he said in a short statement.
Fans will feel the same. Sheffield United’s frontman is now gone and for many it will be hard to imagine how the club – and Prince Abdullah’s reputation – can recover.
Watch: Wilder’s last interview as Sheffield United manager