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

Portuguese flair could make Wolves the dark horses in old gold

WOLVES were fairly comfortable winners at Sheffield United in their first match of the Premier season, but you got the feeling it could have been even better than a 2-0 victory at Bramall Lane.

Sheffield United could find their sophomore season a tough one, although the neutrals will delight in any success that comes their way. For Wolves, the only thing stopping them from being popular among the average British football fan is the fact they are owned by a Chinese conglomerate and they are part of the Gordian knot that is the mysterious Jorge Mendes network – hence there are 10 players from Portugal in their first team squad.

Wolves are not in the very top billionaires’ club, but they are among the leaders of the second tier of wealthy club owners, and they play a brand of football that is exciting and easy on the eye. After two seasons of finishing seventh, they could be ready to make the leap to the next level of the Premier League. In their more traditional old gold shirts, as opposed to a rather over-yellowed version in 2019-20, Wolves showed pace and aggression. They were also way ahead of their hosts, Sheffield United, whom they killed-off in the first 10 minutes with two goals.

Wolves had a longer season than most in 2019-20 and reached the last eight of the Europa League, losing to Sevilla in their 17th game of the campaign. They failed to qualify for Europe by a narrow margin (goal difference of just three goals), but that didn’t extinguish the feel-good factor around Wolves. In fact, an absence of European football might improve their chances of a higher Premier League placing.

The pace and purpose of Wolves’ attacking impressed against Sheffield United, with Raúl Jiménez and Adama Traoré looking particularly sharp. Jiménez scored their first goal with a finish that underlined his agility and accuracy. He’s 29 and a client of Mendes (West Ham will need no reminding of that) and has scored 45 goals in 100 games for Wolves. The Mexican is, without doubt, one of the best strikers in the Premier League.

Traoré, who is 24 years of age, looks like a force of nature. His bulldozing style shouldn’t detract from the fact that he is richly skilful and is one of the best dribblers in the game. The 2020-21 season could be his time and if he can curb the temptation to hold on to the ball too long, he will be a valuable creator, as well as a taker, of goals.

Wolves lost Matt Doherty to Tottenham but received around £ 15 million for the Irish defender. The club has already been in the market with the £ 35 million acquisition of Portuguese teenager Fabio Silva from Porto and Lyon’s experienced left back Fernando Marçal, picked up for a bargain € 2 million. They also signed, on loan, Porto midfielder Vitinha. Silva is a rising star but Wolves may look at what happened to the last young player who had expectation poured upon him, João Félix, and how he has fared at Atlético Madrid. For a club with a relatively small core squad, new signings were badly needed at Molineux.

The Wolves project is still in its early stages but it is clear the club’s owners consider coach Nuno Espírito Santo is the man for the job. He’s just signed a new three-year contract and there are certain to be further reinforcements at the club in the coming weeks and months. Judging by their opening weekend win, this season could be their best chance to break into the top six for the first time for 40 years.







1915: When football seemed unimportant

IT HAS been known down the years as “The Khaki Final”, owing to the vast number of soldiers in military uniform watching the game. While the event is well known, the outcome of the match has been largely overlooked in history. Many people will struggle to name the two finalists: Sheffield United and Chelsea. But this game, coming at the end of the 1914-15 season, has more than a hint of poignancy about it, if only for the sight of wounded soldiers in their great coats watching the game in the Manchester rain. The Great War was supposed to be “over by Christmas”, but just a few days after this final, the second battle of Ypres took place and the German army used, for the first time, poison gas. There would be three more Christmases before fighting would cease.

With Britain at war since the autumn of 1914, there was some criticism that the Football League should take place at all in 1914-15. Punch magazine, for example, wasted no time in making barbed comments. In a hard-hitting cartoon, “The Greater Game”, Mr. Punch remarks to a footballer:  “No doubt you can make money in this field, my friend, but there’s only one field today where you can get honour”.

In  response to a barrage of ill-feeling, the Football Association and its clubs tried to help the war effort, raising funds for charity, allowing grounds to be used for military drills and also running recruitment drives at matches. In late-1914, a Football Battallion was formed, which would number some 600 men and include, among others, Chelsea’s Vivien J Woodward.

The Times reported at the time that around 100,000 men had volunteered via football and by the end of 1914, it was claimed that half of all military volunteers had come forward through local football recruiting efforts.

These anecdotes serve to underline the importance of the game of football in working class Britain, although the establishment still sent out the message: “Sport is good in its way, but it must always hold a subordinate position.”

But such was the underlying discomfort – despite claims that football provided a very positive boost to morale – the 1914-15 season would be the last national campaign until 1919.

Trouble in more humble surroundings

The English Cup Final, as it was more commonly known, had been played at the Crystal Palace since 1894-95, although replays had taken place at Old Trafford, Goodison Park, Bramall Lane and Burnden Park.  However, the Palace was no longer available as it had been commandeered by the Royal Naval Division. Commentators felt that this would result in a much better final than usual –  the past few games at the Palace had been disappointing affairs – and the that the two teams would produce football much more in keeping with their usual style as they both knew Old Trafford rather than “the sea of grass at Syndenham”.

But the controversy over football’s lack of patriotism raged on, led by one Frederick Charrington, a social reformer and part of the famous brewing family. Charrington, an evangelist, led the campaign of protest against football and was heading for Manchester.

220px-Derby_Scheme_poster_Nov_1915The Athletic News noted in the build-up to the final that football had done its bit. Lord Kinnaird, the President of the FA, was adamant that “the new army had drawn most men from the cities and towns where football was most popular.” It was felt that Manchester had contributed more than 80,000 men for Lord Kitchener’s force. The Athletic News issued a mild attack on Charrington: “Those that don’t want to see facts will not see them. Sweet are the uses of advertisement to the reformer, who always attacks that which his blind prejudice distorts… doubt the people of Manchester will assess the gentleman at his true worth when he speaks upon the subject of football.”

The uneasy campaign

The 1914-15 season kicked off on September 2 1914, two days before the first battle of the Marne. Sheffield United were beaten 3-2 at Sunderland, Manchester City trounced Bradford City 4-1 at Hyde Road, Everton won 3-1 at Tottenham, The Wednesday beat Middlesbrough 3-1 at Hillsborough, Aston Villa won by the odd goal in three against Notts County at Villa Park, West Bromwich Albion won 2-1 at Newcastle, Liverpool edged out Bolton 4-3 at Anfield and Manchester United lost at home to Oldham 1-3. Chelsea got underway three days later with a 1-1 draw at Tottenham.

Sheffield United had finished in mid-table in 1913-14, but their FA Cup run to the semi-final had brought in significant sums of cash that were invested in the team. Wing half Harold Pantling joined from Watford and two inside forwards, former miner David Davies (Stockport County) and Wally Masterman (Gainsborough Trinity) added some strength in depth to the squad. Only Masterman made an impact at the club.

United’s most notable player was George Utley, who cost the club a then record £ 2,000 when he joined from Barnsley. Left half-back Utley played in two FA Cup finals with Barnsley, winning the trophy in 1912. He also appeared once for England in 1913. At right half-back, United had another accomplished player in Albert Sturgess, who joined the club in 1908 from Stoke. Sturgess, whose wiry appearance earned him the nickname, “hairpin”, won two England caps and played over 500 Football League games.

UtleyInside right Stanley Fazackerley was a clever and strong player. He joined United  for £ 1,000 in 1912-13 from Hull City where had caught the eye in a brief stint after joining from Accrington Stanley. Neither Fazackerley or centre forward Joe Kitchen were capped by England, although they both went close. Kitchen had two spells with United and was also a proficient cricketer. He was a prolific scorer who netted over a century of goals for United.

At the end of December, before they embarked on their FA Cup run, Sheffield United were perched in mid-table, despite a good run of wins. But from Boxing Day through to Easter, United were unbeaten. That set them up for a final placing in the top six.

Chelsea, meanwhile, had to endure a league campaign of struggle. Always renowned for having more style than substance, the Pensioners had finished eighth in 1913-14. But in the close season, manager David Calderhead had been raided Scottish football for some exciting talent and, not for the first time, considerable sums of money had been spent on trying to mould Chelsea into a championship challenging club. Jimmy Croal arrived from Falkirk, Bobby McNeil from Hamilton and Laurence Abrams from Hearts. They were also putting their faith in a one-eyed centre forward called Bob Thomson, signed from Croydon Common three years earlier.

Chelsea also had Harold Halse in their ranks, a player who had won two League Championships with Manchester United and a FA Cup winner’s medal with Aston Villa, as well as an England cap in 1909.

But despite no small amount of talent or experience, Chelsea had a wretched time in the opening weeks of the season, failing to win until their seventh game. In fact, they won just once in their first 10. The remarkable thing is that they took three points from four off of Everton, who would later win the title. They finished 19th, which would have normally meant relegation. But this was a far from normal season.

The Cup that cheers….and distracts

When  Sheffield United and Chelsea began on the road to Old Trafford, United were 10th and Chelsea 16th in the first division table. United hosted Blackpool, a mid-table second division side. But they made hard work of the tie, Masterman scoring twice in a 2-1 win. The performance had been “nothing to boast about,” said the Sportsman.

Chelsea took two games in round one to dispose of Swindon Town of the Southern League. The first meeting, played in heavy rain, was spoiled by an “overdosing of throwing-in from touch in the closing stages”. The game ended 1-1, but the replay, also played at Stamford Bridge, saw Swindon go into a 2-0 lead. But Chelsea hit back and won by 5-2.

In the second round, Sheffield United beat Liverpool 1-0, a late header from Kitchen, and Chelsea disposed of Arsenal by the same score, a tight contest settled by a Halse goal.

Harrow CardRound three saw Chelsea come into their own, beating Manchester City at Hyde Road by 1-0. It was a great rearguard effort by the Londoners, whose defence was, in the words of Athletic News, “relentless”, with Jack Molyneux and Jack Harrow in magnificent form. But Chelsea won thanks to a goal from Thomson, who rounded goalkeeper Smith and scored from an acute angle.  Colourful language from the Athletic News makes one wonder: “Thomson was literally smothered with caresses when he scored the only goal, and he deserved the amorous embraces and the fondling of his colleagues.”

Sheffield United had a “grim struggle” against Bradford, a game characterised by “strength and stamina”. Again, a single goal decided it, and once more Joe Kitchen was the matchwinner for the Blades.

In the quarter finals, both United and Chelsea took two games to scrape through. At Oldham, United defended in depth to earn a 0-0 on a very muddy pitch. In the replay, United won 3-0 at Bramall Lane, Kitchen scoring twice and Fazackerley once.

Chelsea drew 1-1 with Newcastle at Stamford Bridge in a game described by the media (or whatever you would call it in those far-off days) as one of the best of the season. The Pensioners were up against the “offside game” developed by Bill McCracken and Frank Hudspeth, tactics which infuriated opposing crowds in 1915. The replay at St. James’ Park was another close-run thing, but an unexpected goal from Harry Ford was enough to send Chelsea through to the semi-finals.

The last hurdle

Nobody gave Chelsea much chance of winning through at Villa Park against Everton, who were in contention for the championship. But Calderhead’s men were very composed and focused (again, words that would hardly have featured in a 1915 dressing room), as if they were “taking part in a friendly encounter at a Sunday school treat for a set of tin medals.” Everton were over-eager and over-wrought, according to contemporary reports. Croal and Halse scored two brilliant second half goals to win the game 2-0.  Croal won plaudits for his style: “His football is a triumph of mind over matter, without a theatrical touch”.

Sheffield United beat Bolton Wanderers 2-1 at Blackburn’s Ewood Park. James Simmons, the nephew of United and Chelsea legend Willie Foulke, scored after half an hour but the game was effectively won by a virtuoso goal from George Utley. He evaded the challenge of two Bolton players and ran some 30 yards before confronting goalkeeper Edmondson and shooting confidently into the net. “Utley’s famous goal,” screamed the headlines, and it was enough to secure a 2-0 half-time lead.

So the final was between two teams that had drawn both their league meetings by 1-1. Sheffield United had the pedigree of cup fighters from the days of Ernest Needham and Willie Foulke, Chelsea had been searching for the moment to really announce their arrival as a credible force. Given what was going on in France and Belgium, it would have been easy to forget a mere football match.

All dressed up in Khaki with somewhere to go

The abiding image of the 1915 FA Cup final is of a group of uniformed soldiers, some wounded, turning up their collars to protect themselves from the drizzling rain of Manchester. But amid the controversy over whether football had done the right thing in continuing with organised football, some people still believed that the finalists had brought joy to their supporters. Consider the Sportsman’s preview of the game: “The Londoner in the trenches has rejoiced that for the first time since the days of the Boer War, there is a chance of the Cup finding its home in the metropolis.”

Back at home, life went on. The music halls were still doing good business and the cup final programme was packed with advertisements for shows that could be seen “tonight at 6.30 and 8.50”. There was barely a mention of the war, however.

But in the newspapers, previews of the game were punctuated by wise words from the great and the good. “This war may prove to be a blessing rather than a curse if through it our people learn that the state is not something from which we are all to get as much as we can grab by the unscrupulous use of our votes, but represents rather ideals for which we are ready, if need be, to sacrifice our very lives” – Earl Roberts V.C.

Chelsea were struggling to get their key men fit, notably Thomson, who had scored five goals on the road to the final. There were rumours that Vivien Woodward, the club’s England centre forward, would return from service to play a part, but Woodward, ever the gentlemen, said he would only be included if Thomson was unfit. Thomson, who had dislocated an elbow, was only passed fit at the eleventh hour while Woodward sat in the stand. Halse and Jack Harrow were also far from fit.

Sheffield United were fielding an all-English side, which appealed to the patriots in the crowd. They were marginal favourites, owing to their strong defence. Chelsea were considered to have something of a lightweight side.

April 24 1915 was a wet and murky day in Manchester, creating a very gloomy afternoon to bring the curtain down on first-class football until 1919. “Cottonopolis was enveloped in a mantle of mist; its streets presented a surface of greasy mud,” said the Sportsman.

1915 Cup Final (232x350)Now play for England

The atmosphere, while lacking the carnival “day out” typical of the Crystal Palace finals, when hordes of northern folk came down to London for the day, if not weekend, was strictly nationalistic.

Sheffield United didn’t take long to take a firm grip on the game, putting Chelsea under intense pressure. But it was not until the 36th minute that they took the lead, and it was thanks to a mix-up in defence involving Harrow and goalkeeper Jack Molyneux. Simmons took advantage and “sent the leather crashing into the net”.

Chelsea continued to flounder in the Old Trafford mud but held out until the 84th minute when United netted their second goal. Utley hooked the ball against the crossbar and the rebound fell kindly to Fazackerley, who lashed it into the net. This prompted a small pitch invasion, a premature celebration of certain victory.

Three minutes later, the 50,000 crowd was rewarded with a third goal. Kitchen  received the ball just past the halfway line, ran at full speed and then teased Molyneux before scoring. The Athletic News described it as “the most thrilling moment of the contest.”

There was little consolation for Chelsea. Their forwards were considered “feeble” and the whole team “novices”. “Sheffield simply swept Chelsea off their feet.” That said, reports suggest that despite the one-sided nature of the game, they never lost heart. But the final score said it all: Sheffield United 3 Chelsea 0.

The cup was presented by the Earl of Derby, a great organiser of recruitment campaigns, who urged supporters to join the war effort and told the two teams: “You have played with one another  and against one another for the Cup; play with one another for England now.”

Sheffield United may have won the cup, but in some ways, it was a hollow, but deserved triumph. By the end of the first world war, 670,000 members of the British Army were dead or missing and another 1.7 million wounded – statistics that put football into perspective.

The Athletic News, various editions 1915
The Sportsman, various editions 1915
Clareborough, Denis: Sheffield United, The First 100 Years (1989)
Goldblatt, David: The Ball is Round (2006)
Jensen, Neil: Chelsea, the first 10 years (1984)
Sewell, Albert: Chelsea Champions (1955)
Walvin, James: The People’s Game (1975)