Sheffield United return to the Premier League with a point to prove
Sheffield United will return to the Premier League next season, and they’ll be doing so with a huge point to prove.
Relegation in 2021 came with a whimper, and it was such a shame. In the previous campaign, their first since 2007, they finished ninth and for long spells looked genuinely in contention for Europe. Bramall Lane was bouncing, a battleground for any visiting team; Chris Wilder had dragged the club, his club, from third tier obscurity to the top flight in double quick time; their playing style was unorthodox, predicated on the centre backs overlapping wide and contributing to attacking play. Coupled with a boisterous South Yorkshire crowd, it proved too much for many a visitor to the Lane. Win after win after win, it genuinely felt like Sheffield United were on the cusp of something truly historic.
But they needed that push from the home fans; the noise and the throng of their home. Without it, the intensity that fuelled them dropped and with it, so did their performances and results. Coronavirus, the subsequent three month break from football and the restart behind closed doors proved fatal. Safety was assured well in advance, an impressive feat given that they were almost universally written off at the start of that campaign, but they needed momentum, and once it was sapped away, they drifted.
Ninth remains an impressive finish, but it could have been so much better. The only recorded malfunction of goal-line technology cost them dearly in the first game of Project Restart against Aston Villa, and it was as if their luck never recovered. They won just two more games before the end of the season, albeit against Tottenham and Chelsea, but they never arrested that slide.
History was looking likely for all the right reasons, but in the 2020/21 campaign, a full season without packed stadia, it could have been record-breaking for all the wrong reasons. Derby County’s all-time low points tally of 11 points seemed like it could be broken; there were very few high points, save perhaps an away win at an empty Old Trafford. Wilder was sacked before the season was out, and Paul Heckingbottam, who is now manager outright, stepped into caretaker charge until the end of the season.
The approach to gaining promotion was different; it meant hiring Slavisa Jokanovic. On paper, it seemed like a solid, logical appointment. Jokanovic had taken both Watford and Fulham up after all. But it just didn’t click; the system change he implemented failed and he was sacked with successive relegations more likely than a return to the top flight. They returned to Heckingbottam, and he went back to basics, finding the formula left by Wilder again. Since then, Sheffield United have not looked back.
They stormed to promotion again this season, finishing second behind a Burnley team that could rival any side seen in Championship. Perhaps the outside world will view them like they did in 2019; they’ll undoubtedly be viewed as a likely candidate for relegation again, but that will suit them just fine.
The spine of the team is very similar to the one that went down. John Egan is still a regular at the back, while Oliver Norwood and John Fleck feature too. Keeping talented Norwegian midfielder Sander Berge, a big money signing from the last Premier League stint, has been huge. Up front, Illiman Ndiaye brings something different; the sort of electricity they’ll need to impress again next season.
Reaching the FA Cup semi finals and knocking out Tottenham shows they are already going to be a threat next season. More excitingly, though, they’ll have the noise and the drive back from a passionate fanbase. That pushed them towards great things last time; losing it cost them even more. They’ve got to be confident of a bright future, starting next season.