Sheffield United: Missing crowds and the element of surprise

AT the risk of sounding like Messrs Cleese, Idle, Palin, Jones, Gilliam and Chapman, Sheffield United no longer have one of their key weapons: “Surprise”. This is just one of the problems facing the Blades in 2020-21 as they lurch from disappointment to disappointment. 

The club must be sick of the sound of nerds and anoraks proclaiming Sheffield United’s start to the campaign as the worst seen in Premier League history, with every setback adding to their tally of misfortune. This is football for you, a game of cliché, jargon and statistics that really don’t matter too much. But it is no longer a start, it is a real time calamity going on at empty Bramall Lane, a disaster building by the day, but one that has an outcome rapidly becoming a reality.

The pressure cooker is still simmering as far as manager Chris Wilder’s future is concerned, but if he were in charge at one of the high profile, media-hungry clubs that characterise modern corporate football, he would already be looking for a new position. 

One hopes that Sheffield United’s suited backroom will remember the club spent 12 seasons out of the top flight and that their track record is far from impressive. They haveave enjoyed the benefits of the Premier just four times in their history. It would be easy for them to forget that just being there is an achievement in itself for a club like Sheffield United. Long-term planning is not hiring and firing as soon as things get tough. Or is it?

Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane has one of the best atmospheres in English football. The crowd is raucous and this undoubtedly helps the home team. When there’s positive momentum, vocal backing can win points and when a club is fuelled by the fumes of success after winning promotion, crowds can play a major role in helping a team over-achieve. In some respects, that’s how Sheffield United played the first half of last season – it may be no coincidence that after lockdown, things were never quite the same. The lack of vocal support in 2020-21 may well have contributed to the Blades downfall. They have won just three games since football behind closed doors started.

But look at their results and they are not of a team getting hammered every week. Of their 16 league games, 11 have been lost by a single goal deficit, seven by 1-0 , three by 2-1 and one by 3-2. Only two have been lost by a three-goal margin. The gap between success and failure is very narrow for them, but they now also have the equally significant hurdle of fading confidence to get over if they are to have any vague chance of avoiding relegation. It may already be too late. Often, narrow defeats start to deteriorate into bigger losses, especially when self-esteem goes out of the window.

History will, inevitably, compare Sheffield United with dead duck strugglers of the past. The Blades have their own benchmark in their team that fell ingloriously through the trapdoor in 1976, a year after a decent campaign when they even had a sniff of the league title. After 16 games in 1975-76, United had won once and picked up two draws, scoring just nine goals and conceding 37. In 2020-21, they have yet to win, have drawn twice and have lost 14. They have scored eight goals and conceded 27. Not a great deal of difference.

Derby County of 2007-08, the worst team of all time if you look at numbers, had won six points from their first 16 games and finished with just 11 at the end of the season. They are not the only outfit to don the concrete overcoat of failure: Queens Park Rangers in 1968-69 looked finished by Christmas in their debut top level campaign and Stoke City in 1984-85, and Sunderland in 2005-06 all had one foot in the trapdoor by the turn of the year. 

If Sheffield United do go down, they will merely be another promoted team that ran out of ideas. Sometimes, the enthusiasm that comes with promotion carries you for a year – indeed, Sheffield United in 1971-72 had a great reintroduction to first division life and then flopped in the second half. Others find their formula works for a longer period of time, but its effectiveness starts to fade – Burnley are a good case in point. The key for the smaller Premier clubs is to survive for a couple of years, start to benefit from the enormous riches of the division and then try and sustain that level – Crystal Palace are in their eighth year, West Ham and Southampton are in year nine and Leicester year seven. The average Premier lifespan of a promoted club over the past decade is 3.5 seasons.

Most people believe the current Blades team is a shadow of the side that finished ninth in 2019-20. They have suffered injuries, notably to centre back Jack O’Connell, whose absence, according to Wilder, is more crucial to his club than Virgil van Dijk’s loss to Liverpool. Critics may point to a lack of quality being bought in the market, although Sheffield United did spend £ 50 million in the close season, but almost half of that was used to buy a 20 year-old striker from Liverpool, Rhian Brewster, who hadn’t managed a Premier League appearance with his old club. He has yet to score this season.

Something needs to happen soon if Sheffield United are to stage a recovery. Whether that is in the form of new management, more new players or a change of style (or all three) is a lengthy debate. They are 11 points off safety, which is a considerable gap at this stage of the season. The average differential over the past five years between bottom place and 17th (the first safety point) has been 13.4 points and the average gap between 17th and 18th has been 2.8 points. There’s still time to save the day, but the comeback has to start now.

Photo: PA

An hour in, I realised I had abandoned social distancing: A return to football

HOW great it was to return to a football stadium and watch a match. Admittedly, it was non-league football step three but regardless, being part of an event with 400 other people and watching live action was very stimulating.

The club did all the necessary precautionary measures: temperature checks, sanitiser at the entrance, plenty of visor-headed and high-vis clad stewards on hand and a few arrows here and there. It was instructive but not over-bearing, certainly not as intimidating as the gang of night club bouncers the club used to employ to act as “security”.

And people were pleased to be back. There was an air of lightness, of optimism and friendliness about the ground – if a certain 70s pop singer wasn’t verboten on playlists these days, the chant, “it’s good to be back, it’s good to be back” would have been playing out of the loudspeakers.

As if in response to the welcoming of fans once more to proper games, the home team obliged with five goals, their latest crop of academy defectors and lower division hopefuls playing bright, attacking football that delighted the crowd.

But one thing struck me and it should have concerned everyone in the stadium. I looked around at about 4.15pm and realised that the heat map (if there was such a thing) would have revealed a very similar distribution of bodies than any other time in the recent history of the club. In other words, social distancing appeared to have flown out of the window. Indeed, I was merely two or three feet away from the chap sitting next to me and just a yard or so from the club stalwart behind me. The chairman was barely four feet from my shoulder. Should we worry?

OK, temperatures had been checked, but a virus can hit you suddenly and can linger. It was interesting that while some people were complaining about the fact that “up north” and in Soho they had taken little notice of the lockdown and that’s why the numbers were climbing, but a beach at Scarborough a pavement café in central London and a football ground, is there really any difference?

Non-league grounds up and down the country would have been no different, so we have to ask, can clubs really control their crowds without a little bit more insistence being applied? If you cannot queue for a supermarket without precautionary geometry, how can people stand on a terrace safely? I attended a Pilates class a few days before the game and the caution of the teacher and the rest of the class was precise and an example of safety first. A football crowd expels a lot of saliva, gas, droplets and other fluids when the fans celebrate, moan, berate and cheer. I thought about that when a small droplet of spit hit my phone screen from the guy behind me.

Social distancing has been relaxed, but it is not a precise science and the instructions have been vague. Masks were in a small minority at the football ground and discipline has never been a strong point of British people, let alone football fans. A crowd cannot be trusted to adhere to the rules without some sort of guidance, therefore clubs should probably think again about how best to ensure a crowd is well distributed around a stadium that has had capacity restrictions placed upon it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the opening day of the season, and I will be adopting a more responsible approach to being a spectator. Throughout the lockdown, I have been cautious, but I cannot help feeling I let my guard down. But I wasn’t alone, many of us acted as if a pandemic hadn’t passed our way. Stay safe has to be the message – at home, at home games and away games!