Two successful managers who have returned to their first league clubs come face-to-face on Saturday as third placed Sheffield United take on 12th placed Wigan Athletic at Bramall Lane. The 51-year-olds Chris Wilder and Paul Cook have both recently guided their teams to promotion from League One and are making a big impact in the Championship.
Wilder is a former Sheffield United player who started his career in the mid-1980’s and played 105 games in two spells for the club. Overall he made 414 career appearances at various clubs including Rotherham, Notts County, Bradford, Brighton and Halifax.
He started his managerial career at non-league Alfreton Town 17 years ago and has worked his way up through Halifax Town, Oxford United and Northampton.
Eventually he returned to his first senior club and the team he had supported as a boy. Wilder has won two division titles, achieving one promotion with Northampton Town, and a second as the man to finally get the Blades out of League One after six difficult seasons.
Both Sheffield United and Wigan are at the lower end of the Championship transfer-spending table and both managers have done well to recruit relatively cheaply from the lower leagues and Scotland.
United players such as defenders Chris Basham signed on a free transfer from Blackpool and Jack O’Connell signed from Brentford are amongst their best performers.
Similarly Latics have recruited impressive defenders Chey Dunkley from Oxford United and Cedric Kipre from Motherwell respectively.
Wilder’s preferred formation is a somewhat unorthodox but well-drilled 3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2 formation and Cook prefers 4-2-3-1, although he surprisingly used a 4-4-2 in the defeat against Millwall on Tuesday night.
Both Cook and Wilder are well-liked and their plain speaking has endeared them to the teams supporters. They both like to play attacking football and have similar football philosophies.
This quote from the Wilder, in The Guardian sounds very much like something Cook would say, “We are not trying to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes you have your off days. We have a way of going about things. Basically we are positive people trying to improve players and teams.”
Similarly Wilder could easily have said what Cook told SkySports, “I don’t think there’s enough emphasis on team spirit and good lads, work ethic and a desire to do well together.”
Cook is a Liverpool fan having grown up in nearby Kirkby but he has a close affinity with Latics having started his senior career with the club and recently signed a new four-year contract.
He had an incredible first season not only leading Latics’ return to the Championship but also leading his side to the FA Cup quarter-finals following victories over three Premier League sides, including the Champions Manchester City.
Cook commenced his playing career at non-league Marine and signed for Wigan in 1984 and went on to play 89 games in two spells with the club. Overall he made 642 league appearances with Wigan, Norwich, Wolves, Coventry, Tranmere, Stockport, Burnley and Accrington.
He started his managerial career at non-league Southport in 2006 and had a successful spell with Sligo Rovers in Ireland before returning to England with Accrington, then Chesterfield and Portsmouth before re-joining Latics in 2017.
Cook has an excellent management record winning three titles with Chesterfield and Portsmouth in League Two and Latics in League One since coming into the Football League in 2012.
After a very commendable return to the Championship the Blades finished 10th and Wilder is looking to push for promotion to the Premier League this time around. United like Latics have very good home form having won four and drawn two of their games so far.
The Blades will be favourites tomorrow as Latics are in the throes of an injury crisis with star man Nick Powell doubtful, Gavin Massey, Michael Jacobs, Will Grigg and Antonee Robinson all injured, Darron Gibson suspended and the Blades loanee Lee Evans not allowed to play.
Cook has said he wants to consolidate in the Championship but if their injury problems subside and they can improve their away form then a play-off spot isn’t impossible.
Wilder and Cook may have started their management careers in non-league football but they certainly look capable of taking their original clubs to the highest level in the near future.