IS history about to repeat itself? The parallel is striking as a feel good factor returns to Bramall Lane with a vengence.
Third in the Championship table after a bumpy start. Six matches played, 12 points, four wins and two defeats. Goal difference plus four.
A mixed reaction to summer transfer dealings, the sole concern being whether the Blades have enough in the tank up front to sustain a concerted promotion challenge.
Glass half full and Sheffield United are in a better place than they were at the end of the last campaign. Glass half empty, yes but not nearly enough of the nine new arrivals match the description originally advertised in the brochure. “Quality not quantity” was Wilder’s mantre at the outset. Quality and promising including a gamble or two might be a better description of what actually occurred.
After six matches last season and lying fifth, United had amassed 12 points despite an indifferent start, four wins, two defeats and goal difference plus two.
Again, divided opinion about summer transfer activity. The main concern being a fear United had underplayed their hand and demonstrated a lack of ambition from the top.
An issue that proved to be valid as they finished six points shy of the play-offs. A valiant effort from largely lower league players on the club’s return to the Championship after six years in the third tier. But had better quality been added to the squad, the likelihood is that United’s season would have been extended.
It prompted manager Chris Wilder’s quit threat if assurances he sought about the direction of the club and an improved budget were not met.
Now United enter the international break in great shape and on the back of four consecutive wins. A 3-0 romp at Bolton was by far their best performance of the season. That is until they raised the bar further, mauling dishevelled Aston Villa 4-1 at Bramall Lane.
“It was embarrassing, just horrible,” said visiting boss Steve Bruce. He endured a particularly miserable return to the ground where his managerial career began. ‘You’re getting sacked in the morning’ rang out – from the away end – as Villa fell three goals behind before half time.
Wilder, meanwhile, is continuing to do what Wilder does. Fashioning and developing a group with great work ethic and on their day are a match for any team in this division.
Last season he took a squad made up largely of journeymen and exceeded everyone’s expectation except his own. In Wilder’s eyes and the more demanding of supporters, they fell short and the reason for that wasn’t his or his players’ doing.
After all the off-the-field drama of early May, Unitedites thought a new page was about to be turned. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
With an improved war chest and £12million banked from the sale of David Brooks to Bournemouth, defender John Egan became the club’s record £4million-plus signing and another £5m was lodged for Ipswich striker Martyn Waghorn who eventually joined Derby.
Surprisingly and somewhat disappointingly, Egan was the only buy. Northern Ireland midfield international Ollie Norwood, on loan from Brighton and by far Wilder’s best summer acquisition, will be added to that in January when his move becomes permanent. A fee believed to be between £1.5m and £2m looks a steal for a real gem.
Kean Bryan, a young defender from Manchester City, and striker David McGoldrick, the free-agent who earned a 12-month contract following a pre-season trial, were joined by Connor Washington (striker, QPR) and Martin Craine (defender, Middlesbrough), all of whom cost nothing.
Of the loanees, Norwood and goalkeeper Manchester United’s Dean Henderson are the stand-out additions. Much was made of the arrival of Liverpool teenager Ben Woodburn, but it is difficult to see how he will command a regular place in the side, especially with the imminent return of Paul Coutts in midfield. Marvin Johnson (Middlesborough), a wide midfield player, completes the roll call.
All of which backs the manager’s claim that United are in a stronger position than they were at the end of last season. But strong enough?
The glaring omission is in the forward line. Skipper Billy Sharp who fell out of favour last season but still managed to score 14 goals, is continuing to prove his worth with four in six league and cup appearances.
Leon Clarke, meanwhile, top scorer (19) in the last campaign and a player transformed, has so far reverted to type and drawn a blank in his six appearances. Much is made of Clarke’s hold-up play, and rightly so. But in the final analysis he is paid to score goals and at the moment that isn’t happening.
McGoldrick looks increasingly useful. Washington, making a cameo appearance against Villa from the bench 24 hours after signing on deadline day, did enough in a short space of time to offer encouragement even if his stats at QPR, almost seven appearances per goal, don’t.
Neither does the fact that Rangers cancelled the contract of the man they paid Peterbrorough £2.5m in 2016 in order to get him off their books and facilitate a move to the Lane.
“It isn't always the ones that are on everybody's lips that you look at” said Wilder reflecting on McGoldrick's promising performance after starting in place of injured Clarke against Villa. Adding: "Sometimes I have to be an accountant as well as a professional football manager at the moment.”
Wilder has certainly kept the club co-owners' books in a healthy condition. For whatever reason United did not make the quality signings where it really matters most – in the forward line. Something that is disguised when goals are going in thick and fast. Seven in the last two matches, but only two of them from a striker – Sharp.
Almost two-thirds of goals in the Championship this season have come from other areas. McGoldrick is the only other forward to score, from the penalty spot. Then there is the prospect of injury. Have United enough manpower to cover?
A frontline which can match free-scoring support is a surefire winning formula. Especially under a manager who engenders great team spirit and will always squeeze the last ounce of effort from his players.
Of course, Clarke could rediscover his shooting boots, Washington may prove to have been under valued at Loftus Road. The same for McGoldrick whose career at Ipswich faded.
Last season United began as an unknown quantity at Championship level but quickly established themselves in what now must be viewed as a missed opportunity for a manager working with hands tied by his bosses.
This time it’s no secret as to what is possible and more cash has been made available. Some of which may still be used in the January window.
As it stands United can be reasonably expected to be thereabouts under Wilder’s vigilant watch. But another close call pointing back to transfer failings is unlikely to be met with such universal understanding.