BIG INTERVIEW: Chris Wilder looking forward to an emotional Sixfields return
Exactly a year on from the day he sealed promotion from Sky Bet League Two with the Cobblers at Sixfields, Chris Wilder is aiming to be celebrating in Northampton again this Saturday - but this time with the visiting supporters.
It was April 9 last year when a 2-2 draw with Bristol Rovers saw Town seal a top three finish, and Wilder’s Sheffield United travel south down the M1 this weekend knowing promotion to the Championship is a whisker away.
Wilder will be making his first return to Sixfields as a manager since leaving the Cobblers at the end of that memorable title-winning campaign, unable to resist the lure of managing his hometown club, and the team he has supported all of his life.
The in-form Blades have been galvanised by Wilder and need one more win to guarantee promotion from Sky Bet League One, but it could be that a draw, or even a defeat to Justin Edinburgh’s revitalised Town, could be enough.
Wilder admits he would have rather sealed the deal in midweek after United beat Coventry City at Bramall Lane, but Fleetwood’s win at Oxford United kept Uwe Rosler’s men, who travel to Oldham Athletic on Saturday, in the hunt for a few more days at least.
It means Wilder travels to a club where he enjoyed a ‘special part’ of his career needing to try and upset the locals who used to adore him, and he knows all too well just how much the Cobblers players and supporters relish a big occasion at Sixfields.
Wilder and assistant Alan Knill are sure to get a warm reception from the Town faithful pre and post-match - but once the action starts it will be all about the Cobblers.
Indeed, Wilder thinks the fact he and assistant Knill are returning to their old stomping ground makes things harder for Sheffield United.
Asked if he wishes the Blades had gone up in midweek, Wilder said: “Yes, I do, but it’s on to Saturday now.
“Both sets of supporters are tremendous, there is no animosity there, there is a rivalry but no animosity, and I fully expect a very, very competitive game.
“It doesn’t do us any favours that we are playing Northampton, because I know how professional they are, and how professional Justin and his players are.
“It is going to be a full-house, and it should be a cracking atmosphere, and of course these are the games you want to be involved in.
“But it certainly doesn’t make it any easier for myself and Alan going back there, it doesn’t make it an easier proposition, far from it.
“But you have to go and get a result wherever it is, you have to try and get over the line and we certainly want to do that on Saturday.”
If the Blades do win promotion a year on from Wilder achieving a similar feat with the Cobblers, it would be an added remarkable twist to what has been a dream spell in the 49-year-old’s managerial career.
“It’s quite amazing the way it has worked out,” admitted Wilder, who also won promotion from the Conference with Oxford.
“Last season against Bristol Rovers it was a funny old day, because we played outstandingly well and went 2-0 up, and I remember John-Joe (O’Tooe) hitting the bar when he should score, and then we got pulled back to 2-2.
“The mentality in me meant I came off the pitch and was really disappointed, but then people started saying ‘listen, you are up’, and then it started to sink in.”
From where the Cobblers were when Wilder took over in January, 2014, six points adrift at the bottom of the Football League, the promotion just 28 months later was remarkable in itself.
The fact Town went on to win the league two title by 13 points, ending the season with a 23-match unbeaten run, made it even more special, but Wilder admits the achievement of keeping the team in the Football League in his first few months in charge ranks right up there alongside the glory days of the spring of 2016.
“Going to Northampton is one of the first fixtures I looked for,” admitted Wilder.
“I am really looking forward to Saturday, as it was obviously a special part of my career, and one I will look back on fondly, even looking back to when we walked in there and the position the club was in.
“The season we had last year was obviously outstanding to get 99 points and win the league by the margin we did and the way we played, but I think it is pretty close between that and the first few months.
“The day we had at Dagenham, the day we had against Oxford on the last day of the season.
“The support we had back then, at Dagenham, in the the games we had, against Southend at home, it was special that season.
“The attitude of the players, and the way we turned it round and survived was an achievement not up there with winning the league, but it was not a million miles off.”
Another achievement that was not a million miles off winning the league, and indeed, might even surpass it, is the fact the club came through the financial turmoil that engulfed it in the autumn of 2015.
Many, many people played their part in ensuring the Cobblers not only got through that crisis to come out the other side, but to prosper and progress as well.
But when it comes down to the main players in that roller-coaster ride of an emotional drama, Wilder is right up there.
It goes without saying his management of the team was outstanding, but his leadership and management of the club and its staff was just as impressive.
He made sure it was a ‘we’re in this together’ spirit, and I doubt the club as a whole, right from the match day staff, to office staff to the players, the manager himself and the supporters has ever been as close.
Wilder was key in that, and as he prepares to return to Sixfields, people from all departments of the club and supporters too will be queing up to shake his hand.
And Wilder hasn’t forgotten what they did either.
“I will never forget what happened, and what people did,” said the former Town boss.
“For us to have days like we did at the end of the season, days like the matches against Luton and Portsmouth, the icing on the cake.
“That was down to the days where the likes of Nick (Ancell), and James (Whiting), Gareth (Willsher), the people in the club shop and all the staff that weren’t getting paid.
“There were the supporters that took us out for tea, and I’m not saying we were hungry and starving or anything, but just the whole attitude of everybody.
“The day at Coventry City where we won in the FA Cup, and then at Notts County where it all came to a head, and there was a real possibility that would be one of the last games.
“Those days are up there alongside the Portsmouth and Luton days, they weren’t the glamour days but they are ones people will remember.”
Ah yes, Notts County.
A day and post-match interview that has gone down in Cobblers folklore, and one that, it is no exaggeration to say, went a long way to saving the football club from extinction.
Wilder always plays down what happened at Meadow Lane down, insisting that he did it because his was the voice that could be heard.
He memorably made it clear he was not ‘appeh’, and the rant aimed at then chairman David Cardoza to sell the club, which he did to Kelvin Thomas just days later, was inspired by the plight of the people Wilder was working with day in, day out at Sixfields, as well as the club’s loyal support.
“For people to come into work and not get paid for three months, and go and do their job and beyond was something special,” said Wilder.
“Put that on top of the players and what they did, then that is the mark of a proper football club.
“The supporters recognised that and they got right behind the team, and right behind the staff.
“They didn’t have to do that, but they did because it is their club.
“They don’t support Chelsea, they don’t support Manchester United, they don’t support Tottenham, they support their local club.
“And along with the highs they had last season, the days we had and some of the moments we had, like at Leyton Orient or at Stevenage where Ricky (Holmes) scored in the last minute, as a supporter of at team like Northampton Town, or even Sheffield United to a certain extent, you have to suffer the lows.
“That makes the highs all the more memorable, and Northampton was a great place to work for me, I really enjoyed it and those memories will stay long with me, and I am speaking for Alan and Matt (Prestridge, fitness coach) as well.
“I spent two-and-a-half years in the car with Al going to work every day, and I know what Northampton means to him.”
Wilder has been back to Sixfields this season, working as a Sky Sports pundit for the Cobblers’ EFL Cup showdown with Manchester United.
At that time, Rob Page was the manager and things were going well for the Cobblers, which delighted Wilder as he was willing the club to succeed.
Things obviously went awry in the months that followed and Page was sacked in January, but Wilder believes Thomas has appointed very wisely in bringing in Edinburgh.
“I was at Northampton for the Manchester United game and the reception I got was great, and quite humbling,” said Wilder.
“I know Matt and Al keep in touch with the staff at Northampton, and from my point of view, some managers leave and they aren’t really bothered about how the club goes, but that’s not the case for me.
“The club apppointed Rob and when they had the consistent results at the start of the season I was delighted, because there is a lot of people at the club that I know, and a lot of players, and Kelvin is still there.
“I always wanted them to do well, and it was disappointing when the team had a bit of a slide, but Justin has come in and done fantastically well.
“I have known Justin a long time, from when he was at Rushden and I was at Halifax, and then right the way through, and he is a proper manager, who has managed at all levels.
“As we found out in 2014, it is difficult when you take over in January and to take over mid-season, with not really a window to work with, but the way he has turned the results around, and the team is difficult to beat is excellent.
“Northampton have got some important results and I think they will comfortably finish mid-table in the division, and I am delighted for Justin, Kelvin and the club, and I am delighted for everybody.
“The points total they have got under Justin has been outstanding, and they are up there in the form table.”
Top of that form table though is Sheffield United, and it is going to be a big ask for the Cobblers to stop them in their tracks on Saturday.
The way they are playing, Edinburgh’s team are capable of doing just that though.
It is going to be a great occasion, and the Cobblers supporters are sure to show their appreciation of what Wilder and Knill did for their club, but they will also want to see them beaten.
This is no testimonial match and Town still need points themselves guarantee their safety in Sky Bet League One.
So how about a scenario that sees a win for the Cobblers, and Fleetwood slipping up at Oldham as well?
That would see Town safe and also see the Blades promoted... surely even Wilder would be ‘appeh’ with that?