On the opening day of the 2016/17 season, Sheffield United were lining up against Bolton Wanderers looking to recover from a previous campaign that had seen them finish 11th in League One. Bolton won the game 1-0 thanks to Jay Spearing’s goal, and the Blades failed to win their next three games after that, leaving them bottom of the table under new boss Chris Wilder, who had taken over at the club he supported as a boy after winning the League Two title with Northampton Town.
The Blades recovered from that dire start to go on a 14-game unbeaten run and they would only lose three games in the rest of the season as they stormed to 100 points and won the title. Now, just two seasons later, with first opponents Bolton bottom of League One with a 12-point deduction before a ball has even been kicked, Wilder is preparing his side for their first Premier League fixture in 12 years when they play Bournemouth on August 10, but the task ahead of him will no doubt be the toughest of his career.
Chris Wilder Up Against it to Keep Sheffield United in Premier League
Credit is Deserved
When Sheffield United dropped out of the Premier League in 2006/07, nobody could have quite predicted the demise they would go on. Three top-eight finishes in the Championship were followed by a dreadful 2010/11 season which saw them relegated to the third tier. Despite being one of the big boys in the league, three failed play-off campaigns, with another in between that saw them miss out altogether, eventually caught up with them and they looked to be stagnating with an 11th-place finish in 2015/16.
The appointment of Wilder though, a Sheffield United fan as well as a bright, up-and-coming manager, couldn’t have been better for the Blades. He made them slick and full of fight, and that’s ultimately what saw them recover from the dreadful start in 2016.
His ability to think ahead meant their style of football was also perfect for the Championship once they returned in 2017/18, and they surprised many by even finishing in the top half. That surprise, though, was nothing in comparison to what they produced last season, where they took Norwich City and Leeds United all the way in the automatic promotion fight before eventually pipping their Yorkshire rivals to the second spot, thus sealing their return to the Premier League just two seasons after it had all looked so bleak for them.
Can Their Signings Compete?
The Blades have made five signings so far, breaking their transfer record on three of those occasions. Fees have been paid for Luke Freeman, Callum Robinson and Lys Mousset, while Phil Jagielka returned to the club that propelled his career and Ravel Morrison arrived from Swedish side Ostersunds.
Freeman’s arrival from Queens Park Rangers could prove to be one of the more underrated deals of the transfer market, while Robinson has also impressed over the years at Preston North End.
Mousset, though, struggled in his time at Bournemouth, Jagielka’s best days are behind him at 36-years-old, and Morrison is perhaps the riskiest piece of business a Premier League side has done after his promising career descended into stints in Italy, Mexico and Sweden.
As well as the new additions, a lot of the Blades’ squad is the same from when they were in League One and others were signed from similar levels, such as George Baldock from MK Dons and Leon Clarke from Bury. That’s not to say they haven’t earnt their shot at Premier League football, but their experience at the level is in clear deficiency compared to players at other teams.
A Mammoth Task for Chris Wilder
There’s no doubting that Chris Wilder will get his team to battle for every point possible. It’s what they’ve been doing ever since his arrival from Northampton and is a large part of their success since his appointment.
The Premier League, though, is on a scale incomparable to the Football League, particularly League One where Wilder’s journey with the club started. So many of the teams promoted from League One in the last ten years are now in the Championship, as yet unable to make the next step up. Wilder has done that, and that deserves credit, but maintaining that position could be what takes him from a good Football League manager to one that is touted for some of the top jobs in the Premier League (Eddie Howe’s links to Arsenal after guiding Bournemouth through the leagues is a perfect example).
As good as it would be to see a historical club like Sheffield United maintain a place in the Premier League, the current squad just doesn’t look capable yet. If they were to go down, which looks far more likely, they could easily bounce back as one of the big Championship sides with a squad befitting of the Premier League. For now, though, it looks to be a step too far and though Wilder will have them fighting to the last, it will ultimately be in vain.
Prediction – 19th