SPECIAL FEATURE: What's the secret to Chris Wilder's stunning success? Buchanan and Moloney explain the genius behind Cobblers' title-winning boss
It only takes a few minutes of speaking to a couple of his former players to realise that Chris Wilder’s astonishing journey from bottom of the EFL to the glitz and glamour of the Premier League has not come about by accident.
Cobblers fans, of course, are well aware of Wilder’s genius having experienced it first-hand but, to a wider audience, his rapid rise has come as a shock and it’s only now he’s in the Premier League that people are starting to sit up and take notice.
Wilder’s story is unique in the sense that he, almost quite literally, started at the very bottom.
After a respectable but fairly unremarkable playing career that spanned 12 clubs, 16 years and 485 games, including a very short loan spell with the Cobblers, there was no glamorous job waiting for Wilder when he retired at the age of 33.
Now 52, Wilder’s first foray into management came at Alfreton Town before he spent six years at financially-stricken FC Halifax followed by a short stint under now-assistant Alan Knill at Bury. He was promoted into the Football League with Oxford United, turned the Cobblers from relegation certainties into title winners and is now one of the most highly regarded managers in the country.
Over the past four seasons - one at Northampton, three with Sheffield United - no manager in the country has accumulated more points than Wilder. He finished on 99 points with the Cobblers, 100 in the following League One season at the Blades before racking up 89 in the Championship two years later.
Add in the 69 he won with United in 2017/18 and he’s compiled 357 points across four years at an incredible average of 89 per season.
And there has been no let up in the Premier League, When the season was officially suspended in mid-March, Sheffield United were seventh, two points behind fifth-placed Manchester United with a game in hand.
Not only is Wilder mixing in the same circles as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, he’s giving them a run for their money.
So, what makes him so special? He’s tactically smart, he has an eye for talent and, perhaps most crucially, he’s brilliant at getting the best out of his players.
“Alan and Chris filled the dressing room with good characters and I think you can now see that at Sheffield United,” says Brendan Moloney, who spent 18 months under Wilder at Sixfields. “They don’t just bring players in for the sake of it,
“They make sure they sign players with the right attitude and the right personality and that has to come before anything else.
“Playing for him, you just don’t want to let him down because he puts everything into it and that’s the type of character he is - you’re desperate to do well for him.
“Good managers can get extra out of their players and that was the case with Chris. He was so passionate at Northampton and you could see that during his interview after the Notts County game.
“That type of passion just drives you on as a player.”
For all he achieved at the Cobblers, that emotive speech on the Meadow Lane pitch in November 2015 will forever be remembered as the defining moment of Wilder’s two and a half year tenure.
“That interview was just the way he was and that’s what you get from him,” explains David Buchanan, who was signed by Wilder in May 2015.
“It will go down in Northampton’s history, that’s for sure, but even now if you look at how he speaks in the Premier League, some of it is a bit controversial but he says things with pure honesty.
“He’s one of those managers and one of those human beings that’s just black and white and you don’t often get that in football, especially as a manager.
“That’s one of the reasons why he’s been so successful in my opinion, he’s got a ruthless edge to him and it doesn’t matter who you are within the dressing room, whether you’re the captain, the best player or a youth team player, he’s black and white.”
The role of Knill, a more understated figure, should not be underestimated either.
“You need a good cop, bad cop routine and those two are brilliant together,” continues Buchanan. “They come as a pair and Chris trusts Alan so much in terms of what he can do as a coach and what he wants him to deliver.
“But they’ve also got so much knowledge about the game. They’re unique in their own way.”
It is also credit to Wilder that his players speak so highly of him even if they're not a regular starter.
“It’s the lads that are not in the starting XI that are the most important because ultimately they’re the ones not playing,” Buchanan adds.
“When you’re in the team, winning or losing, you’re happy because you’re getting picked every week and you’re doing what you’ve always wanted to do. You train all week to play football matches.
“When you’re not in the team and you’re not even being picked for the 18-man squad, it’s about keeping those lads happy and the best managers in the world and the most successful managers have a way of keeping every player happy, whether they’re in the team or not.
“You’re doing everything you can during the week to make sure the team wins and even if it’s a lad in your position that’s doing well, you’ve got to be happy for him and that’s what Chris is brilliant at.
“I know Sheffield United is his home club and all that but when you go to those big clubs, you’ve got to get hold of the dressing room straight away and that’s one thing that he does. All the top managers all around the world do it and so does he.
“Not only that but he’s also tactically very good and he’s got his team playing in a way that nobody has been able to suss out. They’re very, very hard to beat but I also don’t think he gets enough credit in terms of how good he actually is and the impact he has on dressing rooms because he goes in there and he has this uniqueness about him.”
Moloney agrees. “It was obvious at the time that he was destined for bigger things and he would go on and manage bigger clubs in higher leagues.
“It’s just an unbelievable story and I think it goes to show what you can achieve if someone has that passion.
“He wants to win every game and if someone has that, good things come out of it.
“He gives players great belief to go and perform. I remember when we didn’t start well in the title season, we kept going and we kept our belief and a lot of that was down to Chris and Knilly.
“We just didn’t want to let them down.”
Given the speed of his ascent, you wonder just how far Wilder can go. Will his country come calling one day?
“To be fifth in the Premier League is phenomenal but to be honest I’m not surprised at all,” says Buchanan.
“I remember having a conversation with a few friends from Northampton when Chris had just been promoted to the Championship and we were thinking - what price would he be to be England manager one day?
“I think it was about 1000-1 at the time but I don’t think you’d get those odds now!”