WALK ON WILD SIDE
Stuart Hammonds visits Northampton to assess boss Chris Wilder’s impact
MIDWAY through our 90minute chat in his Sixfields office, Northampton Town boss Chris Wilder breaks off to host a meet the manager session with the sponsors of that night’s League Two match against Portsmouth.
“We lost five on the trot leading up to Christmas and New Year, but since the start of January we’ve won seven and drawn one of the last nine – what happened?” asks the Cobblers fan from Beach Marketing.
“It was the massive f****** Christmas party we had when we didn’t come in to train for five days!” deadpans the 47-yearold, before breaking into a huge smile as the halfdozen guests crack up. He is joking, of course; a demonstration of the working class humour honed in Sheffield’s pubs when top-flight footballers, as he was with his beloved United, could slip off to the local after training and get to know the “punters”. It’s how he first came across veteran Cobblers goalkeeper Matt Duke – “I’ve known Dukey for 20odd years, since he was playing Sunday morning pub football for my pal’s team, Bradway” – and this is the kind of environment in which he thrives.
“Our sponsors pay a lot of money to support the club and it’s right that we do it,” says the former Alfreton, Halifax and Oxford manager who, like his old Non-League rivals Justin Edinburgh (Gillingham) and Mark Cooper (Swindon), has worked the hard miles to boss in the top 92.
“I wouldn’t want to have to go in and name the team in front of a couple of hundred punters who’ve had a drink, like Coops had to at Kettering. But it gives them a bit extra for their investment and you get some good guys in asking decent questions, like these tonight.”
Corporate duties ful filled, Wilder can get back to the night’s real business; trying to build on last Saturday when he followed in Jose Mourinho’s footsteps as only the second boss to win at Shrewsbury this term.
Confident in the ability of assistant Alan Knill – his one-time Southampton youth team-mate and former manager when their roles were reversed at Bury for five months in 2008 – to lead the pre-match preparations, he is relaxed enough to sink into the leather sofa and assess where his team currently lie.
My last visit was during his first week in charge after leaving promotion-chasing Oxford. It was transfer deadline day in January last year and the Cobblers were staring relegation in the face, six points adrift of safety.
One of the startling stats of 201314 was that Town spent 217 days in the bottom two and Bristol Rovers just 70 minutes. Yet it was the latter who dropped into the Conference on the final day when Wilder’s new charges beat his old club 3-1 to complete the first job chairman
David Cardoza gave him.
“The January window is not the best to work in, but we had to sign players that in an ideal world we possibly wouldn’t have signed,” says Wilder.
“We brought in five on the day you came up, because the chairman knew the importance of it. He said it would cost the club £1m if we went down. No doubt about it, he backed us to bring in the players to get us out of there and we managed it.
“But what you find is, the players you bring in to have an effect can’t maintain it the next season. Or the lads who were already here had been used to losing for so long, they can’t adjust to new expectations.
“The supporters have been outstanding, even through the bad run, and I’ve said to the chairman that maybe we have to put a structure in place.
“I don’t like talking in terms of plans, but there are certain things this club doesn’t have that the majority of League Two clubs do; in terms of a scouting structure, training ground, player identification and video analysis, which has kicked on and has to be implemented to give the whole package to a team that wants to be successful at this level and kick on to the next.
“These things weren’t in place, and it’s always left me scratching my head because this club has had some really good managers.
“Colin Calderwood, Stuart Gray, Gary Johnson, Aidy Boothroyd... and I don’t think I’m being too con- troversial in saying that maybe two or three of the managers have seen this as a stop off to get back up to the level that they wanted to work.
“I’ve never really worked like that. I am ambitious, of course I am, but, if that happens, it’s off the back of my work longer term.”
Wilder describes himself as “a builder”, which is ironic considering he once spent a day labouring on a building site after his professional playing career had come to an end, and vowed never to go back.
After a season winning four trophies as player-boss of then-Northern Counties East club Alfreton Town, he rebuilt Halifax and Oxford after they’d fallen on hard times. In the summer of 2002, he took over a recently relegated Shay side in administration. He took them to the Conference play-off final in 2006, but the cashstrapped club were liquidated two years later.
Oxford were languising in the bottom half of the Conference when they appointed him in December 2008, but were promoted as playoff winners in 2010.
“Every club I’ve been at, I’ve been there long-term,” says Wilder. “I talk to the chairman all the time and he knows what we want to do longer term.
“We’ve had injuries all season – ridiculous things like losing players at ten-to-two on matchday, and both centre-halves within 15 minutes at Tranmere – and not been able to get a settled side until December. When we did get big players back fit and a consistency in selection, it enabled us to thin the squad out and do a bit of business to get two or three in, like Ricky Holmes, Brendon Moloney and Jason Taylor.
“You always want to get there in the quickest possible time. People say ‘Well, is it too early to sneak into the play-offs or get promoted?’You can never turn anything down.You never turn a win down, do you? But you have to build and the chairman recognises that.”
Watching players like Lee Johnson going straight into management at League One Oldham, aged 31, then switch to a bigger club in Barnsley inside two years, not to mention Garry Monk in the Premier League with Swansea, you could forgive Wilder for looking up with a hint of jealousy. Not so.
“Sometimes it’s all about timing,” he says.“You have to be in the right place at the right time, but I’m pleased to see the likes of Gary Rowett (Birmingham), Coops and Justin get jobs, because they’ve done the same as me.
“I’ve not got a sacking on my CV and I’m proud of that. Maybe if I had, I’d have put a couple more quid on my bank balance. You see some of them, they leave a club and get paid off, they find another, get sacked, get paid off and move on again.
“Of course you want to manage at the higher level, but I always want to do it with the club I’m at.
“I know that when the chairman here sees the likes of Brentford, Bournemouth and Rotherham competing in the Championship, we have to have that sort of ambition.”
If Northampton keep on going the way they are – the 1-0 win over Pompey that followed made it eight wins from ten and put them within three points of the play-offs – Wilder could be in League One sooner than expected.
He adds:“We are all desperate to have a go at it and we believe that if we keep injury free and the boys keep playing the way we are, we could go pretty close in terms of getting in the play-offs.
“There is a lot of hard work to do, but we want to keep our season alive as long as possible.”
If it runs into May, it could be time for another massive party. This one for real!
PLENTY TO APPLAUD: Chris Wilder has had an excellent first year in charge of the Cobblers – and now wants to aim for more
WINNER: Chris Wilder with his January manager of the month award LEFT: Mark Cooper is impressing in League One with Swindon RIGHT: Chris Wilder looks more serious while assistant manager Alan Knill sees the funny side