What is Wilderball?
Updated: Jul 20, 2019
Earlier this year, we established the first Dem Blades writing competition. We encouraged creative Blades to take on the question 'What is Wilderball?' - there were some genuinely brilliant efforts - but our judges, Kate Burlaga (Sky) and Danny Hall ('He's one of our own', The Star), had to find one winner. Oliver J Ford is that winner, and here is what Kate had to see about his entry:
"An emotive, elegant piece of writing. Sharp storytelling and clear purpose with beguiling hook and satisfying circular structure. Personal, yet encapsulates football fans’ shared sense of family, community and identity. "
By Oliver J Ford
Wilderball is communion with the dead, football as seance.
Radio Sheffield held a special phone-in after Sheffield’s United promotion to the Premier League was confirmed. One of the first messages read out by presenter Adam Oxley was from a fan called Chris, who confessed he hadn’t been to Bramall Lane since Christmas Eve, when his Dad had passed away. They’d always gone together, it would have hurt too much to go without him now he was gone. Chris said he knew his Dad was watching from somewhere.
On Twitter, there were countless similar tributes, public acts of remembrance. “That one’s for you Shred” and “They did it mate” acknowledged the late David “Shred” Spencer, a massively popular superfan who ran an inclusive coach to away games before his death in 2015. In the comments of the club’s Youtube account fans struck the same notes: “My Dad will be having a drink to this amazing team up in heaven”. “My old pal Paul will be doing somersaults up in heaven”.
Chris Wilder too mentioned the departed - “hopefully he’ll be looking down, Hodgy, he wanted me to get this job” - remembering Alan Hodgkinson, former Blades goalkeeper who worked with Wilder at Oxford, who also died in 2015.
There are people I wish were alive to see it too, but, unreligious as I am, I feel they know.
It was one of my uncles who first inducted me as a Sheffield United fan. When he heard about my birth (in Bristol), he went straight to Bramall Lane and signed me up as a junior member. I still have the certificate somewhere, with a letter from then-manager Dave Bassett. It came with a small, knitted scarf, delicate layers of red and white, a childhood relic now.
As a teenager I drifted away from football, but my passion came back after I left home for university, wanting a tether to family, to the feeling of home. In particular, I wanted to remember my grandad, who’d died the year before I went.
I have very strong memories of my grandad watching the Blades. He’d sit by the television in the corner of our living room, leaning forward, his hands clasped in front of him. He’d shuffle in his seat, and his mannerisms and occasional pronouncements on the unfolding action have woven their way into family legend. “We’ve scored too early,” he used to say, a classic example of perverse Sheffield pessimism, seeing in what should be a cause for celebration a potential future defeat. When we inevitably conceded there was a shake of the head, a tut. He died during the last Premier League season, and the club I started to support in earnest shortly after was a club on the way down.
My uncle’s health, too, had declined during this time, but we kept on talking about United. I’d write him match reports from League One - describing away days in Carlisle or Wycombe - and when we met up (too rarely) he’d tell me about his favourite teams from growing up, raving about the Spurs team of the 60s, and of when he briefly worked for the club, meeting Derek Dooley. I have a photo of him holding up the paper in 1971, when the Blades beat Watford to achieve promotion to the First Division. He was a gentle man with a winning smile, both qualities evident in the photo. He seems almost sheepish, like he’s not entirely comfortable with the success, with United being any good, or like he can’t quite believe it.
He died from heart complications in 2012 (only a few years after his brother had passed away), with United still adrift in League One, a few more years of dross and desperation to wade through before the arrival of Chris Wilder in 2016.
It is impossible to think about the recent successes and not think about how my uncles and grandad would have enjoyed watching it unfold, how they would have seen themselves in this hard-working team, the perfect blend of elegance and grit, precision-crafted to crash into games, going all-out for the win. I might be projecting, but I feel Chris Wilder even looks like them: the same thick hair on top of a round Sheffield head, that mixture of quiet warmth and rugged determination.
So when Jack O’Connell’s header against Ipswich crashed into the net, and deep down we all knew they’d done it, my thoughts too sought out the gone but not forgotten. I can’t imagine there were many Blades whose thoughts weren’t doing the same.
My story isn’t unique, the details don’t matter. But this is the essence of Wilderball, shaping a team that has stamped itself into collective memory, generating a feeling that seeps across generations. Wilderball is football that makes you remember all the little human moments that got you into that stadium on that day to watch that team with those people.
There are times, watching this United team, when it feels like there are ghosts everywhere. Ghosts of all the other United players of years gone by out there on the pitch playing with them, their phantasmic energy swirling around Bramall Lane, as yet another visiting team succumbs to the relentless pressure. Ghosts in the stand, the spirits of fans no longer with us, huddled in the kop, gathered here paying respects to this ur-United, a United that feels more like what this football club should be about than perhaps any team before it, certainly more than any I’ve ever watched.
Wilderball is a ritual of conjuring, an invocation summoning the dead to the here and now, reviving them in our memories to see through our eyes the scenes we now see.
Wilderball is these moments happening right now, in front of us these last few weeks and months, when the history of a club crystallizes into an overwhelming burst of pride and joy. But what matters - and what Wilder understands - is that this moment only means anything because of what went before, who came before.
Wilderball is football as seance, communion with the dead.