Let’s face the harsh reality: Sheffield United are going down – and even spending £100million this month won’t save them.
Two points from 16 games is no basis for survival, and manager Chris Wilder is not going to attract proven Premier League quality to Bramall Lane in this window because it’s a ticket to the Championship.
First and foremost, it’s important that the Blades stick with Wilder.
He procured a miracle by delivering Premier League football, and I genuinely hope they collect more than the record low of 11 points Derby County won in 2007-08.
Yes, he has spent £100m in two years – but he reached the top flight with essentially a League One squad, so investment was always going to be necessary.
They have missed goalkeeper Dean Henderson this year after his loan period from Manchester United expired.
And scoring goals has been a big problem: neither Rhian Brewster nor Oliver McBurnie has been prolific, but the market is stacked against Wilder now.
To stand any chance of survival, he would probably need to buy players worth £40m or more – but players of that value are going to sign for Everton, Leeds or Newcastle, not rock-bottom Sheffield United, where the training ground offices used to be a working men’s club. And is it worth gambling on three or four new players in January whose wages will put a strain on the club’s finances in the Championship? Not in my book.
Their best bet is to follow Norwich’s example: Take relegation on the chin, keep your manager and best players, and start planning now for a promotion campaign next season.
In a way, I am relieved for Wilder that games are behind closed doors now because the fans who generated such a brilliant, feel-good atmosphere last season have less scope to make their disappointment known.
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But I speak from personal experience when I feel desperately sorry for Wilder’s players – because I’ve been in their shoes at Derby, 13 years ago.
Although I’m proud to have captained four clubs in the Premier League, my last experience of the top flight was the worst six months of my footballing life.
To be captain of the worst team in Premier League history – relegated with only 11 points – was soul-destroying.
We were the first top-flight club to be relegated in March and went down with just one win and 29 defeats in 38 games, scoring the fewest goals (20) and conceding a record 89.
They had seven points on the board when I joined Derby thinking I could help to keep them up. In the end, I was ‘only’ 25 points short of reaching my target. Derby brought in eight players in the January window – including myself, Laurent Robert, Danny Mills, Hossam Ghaly, Roy Carroll and Alan Stubbs – and it didn’t work. It took the club years to recover and lower the wage bill.
Although I didn’t feel personally responsible, because the club already needed snookers to survive by the time I arrived, it was an awful time.
I would even call it an ordeal.
Although I didn’t have to face the fans on a daily basis because I lived in Manchester, the drive to and from training was depressing. There was a lot of thinking time behind the wheel every day, and the negativity just ran deeper into your system: “What the hell am I doing?”
I had moved to Pride Park for selfish reasons because, at 33, I knew it was the last decent contract I would sign.
But long before the curtain fell, the privilege and enjoyment of being a professional footballer had evaporated. Instead of loving the game, it had become a chore. The fans were singing “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” and I couldn’t bear to bring my kids to home games.
You would sit on the bus to away games, wondering by how many we were going to get beat.
You resolve to play for your pride, your family, the good name of your club – but as soon as the first goal goes in, and your team hasn’t scored it, the feeling quickly sets in: Here we go again.
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For players who lived locally, it was difficult to show their face in supermarkets, restaurants, petrol stations. Fans used to ask for autographs or pictures, but now you couldn’t even look them in the eye because nobody thanks you for being the worst Premier League team in history.
That is the true scale of the mountain Chris Wilder and Sheffield United have to climb – and I don’t envy them.
But I would urge the Blades to stick with Wilder – he loves the club and he would run through a brick wall for his players.
As Daniel Farke has proved at Norwich, relegation isn’t the end of the world. It just feels like it.