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Blunted Blades are relegated – where did it all go wrong for Sheffield United?

Sean Taylor, PA
·6-min read

A year is a long time in football. Sheffield United were a revelation last season on their return to the Premier League, finishing ninth.

But 12 months on their stay in the top flight is over after their long-expected relegation was confirmed on Saturday evening following a 1-0 defeat at Wolves.

It saw the Blades go down with six matches still to play – the joint earliest relegation from the Premier League along with Ipswich (1994-95), Derby (2007-08) and Huddersfield (2018-19).

The earliest Premier League relegations
The earliest Premier League relegations

So where did it all go wrong?

Here, the PA news agency takes a look at some of the factors that contributed to the Blades’ demise.

Have injuries played a part?

Jack O'Connell's absence has been particularly hard on Sheffield United.
Jack O’Connell’s absence has been particularly hard on Sheffield United (Mike Egerton/PA)

Injuries have undoubtedly been a factor, something manager Chris Wilder, who left by mutual consent in March, mentioned countless times during the course of this season.

As the Blades made a seamless transition from the Championship to the Premier League, Wilder’s starting line-up effectively picked itself. Last season, only Burnley boss Sean Dyche made fewer changes to his starting XI than Wilder’s 51. But since finishing ninth on their return to the top flight, the Blades have lurched from one injury disaster to another.

Jack O’Connell’s serious knee injury after only two Premier League matches has seen his formidable back-three partnership alongside Chris Basham and John Egan play only 83 minutes together this season. At the time, Wilder described O’Connell’s long-term absence as “a bigger loss relatively than Liverpool losing Virgil Van Dijk”.

Like O’Connell, midfielder Sander Berge also still remains unavailable with the hamstring problem he suffered in December. Jack Robinson, John Egan, John Fleck, Chris Basham and Lys Mousset have also missed large parts of the campaign through injury at various times.

Was Wilder too loyal to his players?

Former Blades boss Chris Wilder kept faith with many of the players that got the club promoted to the Premier League.
Former Blades boss Chris Wilder kept faith with many of the players that got the club promoted to the Premier League (Anthony Devlin/PA)

The former Blades boss was not afraid to chastise his players when he felt it was deserved, but Wilder was also fiercely loyal towards them – perhaps, on reflection, too much. Wilder kept faith with the large majority of the squad that won promotion from the Championship – some of whom had also played under him in League One.

Initially that loyalty was repaid as the Blades enjoyed an outstanding first season back in the Premier League. However, it had glossed over the cracks and in reality many of the squad which won promotion in 2019 were not capable of helping to take the club to what Wilder often referred to as “the next level”.

Some players should have been moved on as it became apparent that United’s rise up the football pyramid saw them become victims of their own success.

Was falling out over the club’s transfer policy to blame?

Oli McBurnie was the club's record signing when he joined the Blades from Swansea in the summer of 2019 for a reported fee of £20million.
Oli McBurnie was the club’s record signing when he joined the Blades from Swansea in the summer of 2019 for a reported fee of £20million (Oli Scarff/NMC Pool)

Although United’s owners have provided as much financial support as they believe they can reasonably afford, the money available to Wilder only enabled him to shop for a certain level of player, which became a bone of contention for the former manager.

Wilder often spoke of taking the club to the next level and wanted players such as Callum Wilson and Jesse Lingard, but the board would not sanction such moves, with wages the stumbling block. Instead Wilder felt he had to look to the Championship for many of his signings, while the club’s hierarchy wanted a more global approach to recruitment.

Wilder’s success – getting the Blades to the Premier League and then keeping them there for two seasons – far outweighed what should have been achievable given his finances and the infrastructure he worked within, but it eventually took its toll. When he was not allowed to sign players in January, with the owners seemingly opting to protect their position in the challenging economic climate and think about next season rather than try to save the current campaign, it was the beginning of the end and a big reason why Wilder and the club parted ways in March.

Did a lack of goals put too much pressure on the defence?

David McGoldrick is the club's top scorer this season with six Premier League goals.
David McGoldrick is the club’s top scorer this season with six Premier League goals (Laurence Griffiths/PA)

The Blades never created huge numbers of chances, but the difference between last season and this, which was often preached by Wilder, was last season they took more of the ones they did create – and at important moments. Of the 23 Premier League defeats under Wilder this season, 14 of them were by just a single-goal margin, including games against Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City twice.

How different things might have been had they just been able to make the most of their dominance in some matches, before missed chances at one end heaped pressure on an increasingly changing and unsure defence at the other. No promoted team in Premier League history had conceded as few goals as Sheffield United’s 39 last season. Wilder always pointed to consistency in his selection as the key to any success they had as defensive solidarity laid the foundation for their remarkable first season back in the top flight.

However, Wilder just did not have that luxury this time round. As injuries bit, and with goals at a premium, the backline came under increasing pressure in matches and further scrutiny from observers.

Have the Blades missed their fans?

Sheffield United have missed the support of their fans.
Sheffield United have missed the support of their fans (Danny Lawson/PA)

Matches being played behind closed doors stripped the Blades of one of the most potent weapons in their armoury – their supporters. A rowdy and boisterous Bramall Lane crowd last season roused a hungry and hard-working group of players to bridge the gulf facing a promoted team.

Wilder was pivotal to that. There have been few more remarkable or romantic stories in English football than the Sheffield lad and Blades supporter who gazed longingly out at the hallowed Bramall Lane turf as a ballboy, who would then play for the club he loved and pack the Kop with his friends and family, lead them from the stagnancy of the third tier to a top-half finish in the Premier League and make a fanbase fall in love with their team once more.

The Blades faithful adored Wilder for what he was, it was an extraordinary bond he had forged between players and fans.