The long read: Sheffield United's transformation under Chris Wilder that has produced a Premier League return
How the woes of relegation in controversial fashion in 2007 has been forgotten as the Yorkshire side have won promotion to England's top flight
Sheffield United are about to play Ipswich Town in a Championship game in England’s second tier.
It is a huge match, their most important for years. A win and the Blades – as they are known from a city once renowned for making steel – will all but assure their place in the Premier League for the first time since a controversial relegation in 2007, where West Ham United escaped without a points penalty despite breaching league rules over third party ownership with regards to Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano.
Despite being later paid compensation by the London club it was an incident that stung the Yorkshire club, but now they can look again to the future.
It is a stunning turnaround for a club that were in England’s third tier until 2017.
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Bramall Lane, the 32,600 capacity city centre ground which Sheffield’s red, white and blacks have called home since 1885, the oldest major stadium in the world to still be hosting football matches.
United are in this position because a run of 14 wins, four draws and two defeats since they last played Ipswich in December has pushed them beyond faltering Yorkshire rivals Leeds United into the second automatic promotion place.
March’s 1-0 win at Leeds, a game played in front of 37,004, a huge crowd amid the impressive attendances of England’s second tier, was key.
They do not have the biggest budget in the division, but they have the biggest hearts and those wins come from an indomitable team spirit created by their manager, Sheffield born lifelong Blades’ fan Chris Wilder, 51.
Since Wilder took charge in 2016, only Manchester City have won more points in the top four divisions of English football.
It does them no harm that captain Billy Sharp is also from Sheffield and the co-chairman Kevin McCabe was born close to the stadium.
In an age when Championship clubs routinely recruit from abroad, it makes a marked difference that United’s entire playing squad is from the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Many of those players have risen through the divisions with their team and Wilder, a former Blades defender, has won promotion from four of the top five divisions of English football as a manager.
As he goes up the divisions, Wilder’s win rate increases. McCabe credit his “instinct” and “motivational qualities” for the success
There are 90 minutes to kick off and many of Wilder’s friends sit in the The Stag public house and restaurant in a leafy residential area a 10-minute walk down one of the city’s seven hills to the stadium.
They love the central location of their ground and dismiss rivals’ Sheffield Wednesday as playing ‘somewhere miles away near Barnsley.’ Wednesday actually play in Owlerton, a working-class suburb three miles to the north of the city.
Sheffield is also home to non-league Sheffield FC, the world’s oldest football club who have an average gate of 300 fans, but the city’s big two are the Owls and the Blades.
There’s an intense rivalry between the two and a few days after this game, a Wednesday fan draped a bed sheet over a bed sheet in Sheffield with a message in blue reading: “Older. Bigger. Better. Since 1867. This city is ours.”
“There’s hatred,” says United supporter Ian ‘Wit’ Whitehorne, “but for me personally I’ve lived in Sheffield all my life and half my pals are Wednesday fans.
"We joke and I don't want them to lose, but I don’t get the hatred stuff. Wednesday have always had the perception that they’re a bigger and better club than us.
"They had that big iconic old ground at Hillsborough which was tarnished after the disaster, they had a very good Premier League team with Chris Waddle, but there’s really very little between us.
"Hand on heart, if they were doing well and we were doing well they’d probably get a few more fans than us.”
Wednesday are tenth in the league with an average crowd of 24,352, United second with 26,175. When the teams finished second and third in England’s third tier in 2011-12, Wednesday’s average was 21,336, United’s 18,702.
That year, the Blades got 90 points but were beaten to automatic promotion by Wednesday and then lost on penalties at Wembley to Huddersfield Town, the sixth of eight successive defeats in the play-offs.
In 2012, a promotion bid was derailed when top goalscorer Ched Evans was jailed for rape. His conviction was quashed four years later, but the Evans issue cast a cloud over the club.
United will be the better supported next season, just as they have been this term and last but with a population of half a million, Sheffield is often listed as England’s fourth biggest city behind London, Birmingham and Leeds.
It’s a misnomer. The urban area of Manchester, with 2.5 million, is far bigger, Liverpool too, but Sheffield is a substantial city which could easily support two top-flight teams and you see very few football shirts beyond those of the Owls and the Blades.
“The two Manchester teams want to dominate the world, whereas Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday stumble on from crisis to crisis,” Mathew Bell of the longstanding Sheffield United fanzine Flashing Blade once told this writer.
“That has been the case throughout history. United have won nothing since the FA Cup in 1925, and apart from the League Cup in 1991, Wednesday have won nothing since the FA Cup in 1935.”
Sheffield is a city with roots in industry, a city of steel, a down to earth no-nonsense place that lacks the development and glass skyscrapers going up in fellow northern cities Manchester and Leeds.
It is the only city in England with a National Park within its boundaries. It’s also where stainless steel was invented by Harry Brearley in 1913.
Sheffield is hugely passionate about their football and had England’s first radio football phone-in ‘Praise or Grumble’ from the mid 1980s, which still remains hugely popular in the internet age. Arguments of the ‘my dad’s bigger than your dad’ variety persist between Reds and Blues.
One of the callers used to be one Chris Wilder.
“I lived with Chris and Tony Agana,” says Whitehorne. “We used to phone the programme and pretend to be fans. Chris would ring in, put a strong accent on and say ‘Chris Wilder had a great game today’.
Wilder was a proper home and away Blades’ fan.
“Chris and I have been to Wrexham away on a Tuesday night in the Sherpa van trophy,” explains Whitehorne, who saw his first game in 1971.
“We came up that year and were flying. We went to Man United and took 15,000. Then George Best scored that brilliant goal which they still show all the time.”
Whitehorne and Wilder went to games together, then they ran a Sunday football team in Sheffield together.
“He came to Southend away with us in the back of the van when he sat on a mattress. He was a first team player at the time but he wanted to go to the games with the lads. We stayed for the weekend. He’s a working-class Sheffield lad, a Blade born and bread. ”
Today’s light followed a great deal of darkness.
“The spell under Nigel Adkins (2015-16) was the worst I can remember,” explains Whitehorne. “We were mid-table in the third division. We’d go to the games and sit there playing cards instead of watching the football, but then Chris took over and this has been the best ever. Imagine what it’s like when one of your mates manages the team you love?”
And they play entertaining football.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” adds Whitehorne. “At Hull last week, our left centre half drove into the 18 yard box, passed the ball to the full back and he crossed for the other full-back to head the ball in.”
“It’s a fairy-tale,” adds another fan Tearle Phelan, 40. “We’re in a city which can sometimes hold itself back because people don’t want to move forward. It’s a city with a socialist outlook which probably goes back to the (1980s) miners’ strike.
“We want to be the underdogs. We don’t like it when our music groups go too commercial. Manchester and Leeds are full of developments but here there’s no money and the council is rubbish. But it’s the friendliest city, the people are great and the football is even better.”
Another supporter, Jason Machin, a lifelong Blade and former professional footballer, describes the team's evolution.
“We’ve seen overlapping centre halves and the whole team rotates,” he said.
“There are double overloads, it’s ridiculous to see it in action. David McGoldrick, Jack O’Connell and Billy (Sharp) have been the best players and we have a 21-year-old goalkeeper Dean Henderson on loan from Man United who has been terrific. We’re so proud of our friend Chris Wilder. He’s a dry-witted, friendly and generous man.”
“The football causes some amusement among former players,” states journalist Alan Biggs. “I spoke this week with Chris Morgan, the last captain in the Premier League in 2006.
"The idea of overlapping centre-backs was totally alien to him, but very few teams have been able to counteract what they’re doing. Chris Wilder’s biggest achievement is to front everything when the two owners don’t get on. He’s united a disunited club and almost made people forget.”
Wilder was upset with the ownership situation last year, but he told friends, with an air of desperation in his voice, that ‘I don’t want to leave this club.’ A key was the return of the chief executive Steven Bettis in 2018 since Wilder trusts him to be the go between among the owners.
“I’m genuinely delighted that he is back,” said Wilder. “Stephen played a vital role in our League One title success, he was a fantastic sounding board for me and a great link with the board.”
In the pressroom, pies topped with the local Henderson’s sauce are consumed and Biggs, who has covered football in Yorkshire for over 40 years, explains why he thinks the Blades have done so well.
“I thought they’d push for the play-offs again and that would be a huge achievement,” said Biggs. “I’ve known the manager a long time and he didn’t agree with my view.
"He was aiming much higher and he told me in January how he thought he could do it. I changed my mind in early March because there is so much resolution in the group of players and such a sense of belief.
"He has six or seven players with leadership qualities and he prides himself on the dressing room policing itself. Chris can bark with the best of them, but his own shock therapy to the players has only been used three or four times this season.
“He’s got a very tight knit management team, people he’s known for years like Alan Knill. Then there’s Matt Prestridge in sports science.
"Paul Mitchell is the head of recruitment and has managed to get it spot on. Very few of his signings have flopped, even players from lower down. Even the players who’ve flopped have been sold for a profit.”
A minute before kick off, the Kop leads Bramall Lane, into a rendition of one of football’s finest terrace songs. To the tune of John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song’ they holler, with the pride and passion of a tenor in La Scala:
“You fill up my senses,
Like a gallon of Magnet,
Like a packet of Woodbines,
Like a good pinch of snuff,
Like a night out in Sheffield,
Like a greasy chip butty,
Come thrill me again!”
As sulphur from red flares fill the air in the Tony Currie stand, United secure a 2-0 win which all but confirms promotion, with it being officially sealed the next day when Leeds United fail to beat Aston Villa.
The ground is full, apart from empty seats in the Ipswich section, with the travelling fans long resigned to seeing their team relegated to England’s third tier for the first time in 62 years.
The crowd is 30,140 and the club have plans to expand the stadium which long housed both cricket and football, with extra tiers of seating on the main stand and the Kop.
“We are the Blades, we are the Blades, ole, ole, ole,” sing the crowd. “He’s one of our own, Chrissy Wilder is one of our own.”
Sharp comes on to a hero’s reception amid chants of ‘We are going up.’
The players join for a group hug after the game.
“The manager told us to embrace it, to enjoy the moment with the fans,” right back George Baldock, 26 beams.
Did he expect it?
“Maybe not as soon as this. It has been one hell of a ride. A lot of the team have been here from the league one campaign, but I remember my first training session here and the manager talked about Bournemouth and how they had come up through the divisions. He said that we could do the same and he was convinced it could be done. He was right.”
After the game, they play ‘Rotterdam’ by The Beautiful South. Paul Heaton, formerly of The Beautiful South and The Housemartins, isn’t from the city but he’s been following the Blades.
“My two brothers are Sheffield Wednesday fans and my dad took us there but I always wanted to watch United,” he once told this writer. “My first match was in 1969 and we beat Villa 5-0. They let me in for free, unlike at ‘Swillsborough’. I told all my friends to go to the next game, but we lost 1-0 to Bolton.
"That gave me an early sign of what it meant to be a Sheffield United supporter. You don’t build them up because there’s something dangerous about it.”
Heaton moved to Surrey at 14. “I went to games by myself,” he said. “It was an isolated existence and not many people spoke to me. I went with a friend called Joe Sweetinburgh. We stood out in half-full away ends because I dressed like a tramp and he was black. We were known as the ‘Cockney Blades’ to some.”
He got to know many of the Sheffield United hardcore.
“Hanging around with different people from football kept me on a steady path,” he explained. “United and Wednesday are probably equally popular in the city of Sheffield, but Wednesday’s catchment area is bigger, their fans are more Yorkshire with a capital Y, a bit more brash.”
“We’re never going to be the biggest or the best,” Whitehorne adds. "But we just ask that they give their best. We’ve not had too many heroes here, but players like Tony Currie and Keith Edwards became icons among our fans. Then Brian Deane and Tony Agana in the early Premier League era.”
Wilder speaks to the media after the game.
“It’s been an incredible afternoon that caps off an incredible three years really, for myself personally,” he said.
“So to reward these supporters who’ve had to take a lot of grief in recent times, being out of the Championship for six years, in the pub league as people called it, but we’re heading to the Champagne league now.
“It is not a glory-hunting club,” adds Wilder. “I have always said that. We do not win Premier League titles year after year, or compete in the European Cup.
“We have been down to the old Fourth Division, come back up and then gone down again. And back. We're down to earth and I think that counts.”
There are issues to overcome. Prince Abdullah Bin Mosaad Bin Abuldaziz Al Saud, a co-owner since 2013, is locked in a fight for control with McCabe and they’ll meet in the High Court this month.
McCabe, 71, wants to sell the club and be a supporter once again. There was acrimony, but McCabe claims they’ve also had an understanding for the better of the club.
The conflict didn’t hold them back as the Blades are going up having overcome 23 rivals in a division which includes fellow Yorkshire sides, Leeds United, Wednesday, Hull City, Rotherham, plus nearby Nottingham Forest, Derby County and Burton Albion.
A raft of spicy derbies and near-derbies which even the Premier League would struggle to match.
As the only Yorkshire club in the Premier League next season following the relegation of Huddersfield Town, they’ll be able to live with that. And how they deserve it.
Back at the train station, police smile as fans sing ‘We are the Blades’. The Sheffield Star newspaper led with a front page headline of ‘Bring It On’ before the match.
A day later, their promotion was confirmed. Now it is bring it on in terms of the Premier League being the next challenge
Updated: May 3, 2019 03:02 PM