Forthright views and exciting style: What Hearts would be getting if they hired Chris Wilder as manager
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Currently in charge of Watford in England’s second tier, the 55-year-old will see out the campaign before the Hertfordshire side are expected to make another change at the top. He was heavily linked with a move to Aberdeen before taking over the reigns at Vicarage Road, but with the Dons increasingly expected to give Barry Robson the manager’s job on a permanent basis, following a run of seven successive victories, which could give Hearts a clear path to recruit the No.1 contender.
Wilder took the long route to the top of English football, which is a little unusual for someone who had experience (albeit brief) of playing at the highest level with boyhood club Sheffield United back in the early 90s. As most players do, he eventually drifted down the leagues and ended his playing career in 2001 at Halifax Town in the old Third Division.
His first job was way down in the ninth tier with Alfreton Town, whom he led to league and cup success during his two-and-a-bit years. From there he returned to Halifax in the Conference League, where he stayed for six years before they went into liquidation. He would spend another six years as manager of Oxford United, beginning at the same level, and this would be where his managerial stock would slowly start to rise before eventually taking off into the stratosphere. He got Oxford back into the football league and kept them there before jumping ship to Northampton Town. In the space of three seasons he saved them from relegation and won them promotion as champions. This caught the attention of Sheffield United who decided to bring their former son home.
His first four years as head honcho at Bramall Lane were remarkable. He won the League One title in his first season, won promotion to the Premier League in his third and in the fourth got them their highest finish in almost 30 years.
Eventually the good times had to stop and he was jettisoned the following campaign with the United struggling at the bottom of the table. Since then things haven’t been so rosey and a concern would be, should he be hired by Hearts, whether they’re possibly getting a manager on the decline. He lasted just 11 months in his next stint as Middlesbrough gaffer, while his current short-term deal at fellow Championship side Watford isn’t exactly going according to plan either.
If Wilder decides to accept an invitation to leave English football and get himself up the road, he’ll be inheriting a squad that’s been largely constructed around his preferred style of play. He’s not dogmatic and will switch to a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 when he sees the need, but he typically prefers to go with a 3-5-2 system. He wants his centre-backs to overlap in the midfield, something Toby Sibbick, Stephen Kingsley and Kye Rowles are all comfortable doing, while his wing-backs are pushed very high up the park. This would suit Nathaniel Atkinson as the Aussie has defensive deficiencies but loves to attack the opposing penalty area, while Alex Cochrane has become increasingly more impactful in that regard this campaign after a steady-Eddie approach in his debut season.
Of course, if he were hired then new recruits would be brought in with his ideal style in mind, but regardless of the personnel or set-up, Wilder is someone who wants his teams to not only attack opponents but to go for the jugular. For Hearts fans who’ve often found football under previous managers to be too methodical or unimaginative in recent years, this would be a breath of fresh air.
Wilder’s “ASTONISHING” rant earlier this season about his Watford players acting as a group of individuals and not as a team would not have been a surprise to anyone familiar with his media persona. He’s not an evasive type of head coach who likes to keep his cards close to his chest. Robbie Neilson, his potential predecessor, would often try to avoid giving away too much, whether it was regarding injury updates or criticism of the team. He liked to keep all of that in-house. When he wanted to give the press a headline to sink their teeth into it was typically around criticising officials. This has its advantages, of course, in terms of keeping the opposition guessing as to what the starting XI would be and keeping players onside, but it was an approach which wore quite thin with supporters.
But while it bought Wilder some time with fans during his longest and most high-profile stint, in charge of Sheffield United, ultimately it diminished patience among the board, who didn’t appreciate being dug out by the head coach for their perceived flaws. He wasn’t antagonistic, he’s just someone who speaks his mind. There was real harmony, at least publicly, between Neilson and the Hearts hierarchy during his spell, which suggests a smooth operation behind the scenes. So it’ll be interesting to see if Wilder views things any differently should he come on board.
All in all, this would be a really exciting hire for Hearts to make if it’s a route they choose to go down and are able to pull it off. Wilder managed successfully in arguably the most competitive league in the world just three years ago. He has a wealth of experience and suits the “proven winner” tag which the Tynecastle club are seeking.