FIRST impression following the Premier League fixture release – we can do this.
Since Sheffield United clinched automatic promotion in early May, all the focus, quite naturally, has been on the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham coming to Bramall Lane; and trips to The Emirates, Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge.
But after party balloons popped and the beer cellar ran dry, these last few weeks before reaching for the diary once again have become increasingly anxious if you are a Blades fan like me as the enormity of the task ahead approaches. Especially with the on-going High Court power struggle between the club’s co-owners raining on the promotion parade.
So it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that those of a similar mindset, reached for their phones, tablets and computers at 9am on Thursday to discover what we’ve been missing for the last 12 long years.
Then, for me at least, all the angst drained away. It’s easy to become focussed, as national media is, on the top six clubs, the richest and those almost certainly going to carve up the spoils among themselves. Since promotion was confirmed we’ve seen Manchester City win an enthralling title race with Liverpool, all-conquering City’s FA Cup final triumph, and two European finals fought by four English teams, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham.
But kicking off at Bournemouth, with Crystal Palace and Leicester City to follow at the Lane, it is a tacit reminder there are more of us than them in the top flight. The step up is a huge challenge – from League One to the Championship pales in comparison – but with all due respect, Watford, Burnley, Brighton, Aston Villa, Norwich, Southampton and the aforementioned don’t sound quite so frightening.
There are three leagues within the top flight and even for well-established clubs like Everton, West Ham and Newcastle United, finishing somewhere within the middle tier is what it’s all about. The top is beyond reach because that is where the financial clout and most talented players reside.
Leicester broke the mould in 2016 by winning the title, an extraordinary feat unlikely to be repeated. While the lower deck is where all the chewed fingernails are collected on the way to the misery of possible relegation, progress halted and having to start all over again. Blades fans are well aware of how long that can take.
Many managers of promoted clubs dust down that old soundbite and tells us that finishing fourth from bottom is the goal. As it undeniably is. There aren’t many United followers who wouldn’t settle for that guarantee before a ball is kicked.
One who won’t, however, is Chris Wilder. The United boss and lifelong fan always aims high and while staying in the Premier League has to be his bottom line, indeed a triumph, we all know that he will expect more than that.
So are United anywhere near prepared. The answer is no and there is a major recruitment effort needed between now and the beginning of August to put that right. Wilder has a first team squad of 16 after announcing his retain list, only four of them have Premier League experience. Two of those count nine appearances between them.
Against the backdrop of in-fighting between co-owners Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a budget fit for purpose is on hold, and if and when it does arrive, it will be too late for Wilder to take advantage until the January transfer window. Although reports suggesting United have approached midfielders Antonio Valencia, 33, and, a more outlandish claim, 36-year-old Franck Ribery, out of contract with Manchester United and Bayern Munich respectively, if true would suggest money is there to meet high wage demands.
So, once again, everyone at Bramall Lane, chiefs and Indians, are relying on one man and his backroom staff to pull yet another rabbit out of a hat. Having done just that in two of his three seasons at the club, arguably all of them, only a cynic with no local knowledge, or a hard boiled Wednesday fan, would back against it.
The fate of the previous season’s promoted clubs, provides a telling story. Wolves, Championship winners in 2017-18, demonstrated what is possible by finishing seventh in the Premier League. A feat beyond the Blades aspiration. Nuno Espírito Santo’s men were already preparing and spending for scaling the heights. To prove it they were head and shoulders above the rest in the second tier.
Just as United were when they ran away with League One, collecting 100 points, and finished a creditable six points short of the play-offs on their return to the Championship following an absence of six years. The important difference being Wilder had nothing like the financial resource available to the Wolves boss.
Fulham, meanwhile, widely acknowledged as the most attractive to the eye on the way to the Premier League via the play-offs, tore up their formula for success, took a wrecking ball to the squad and spent over £100m on new talent. Result? A fractured campaign, two managers and relegation. Proving money doesn’t necessarily buy success. It’s how you use it, allied with team togetherness, that really matters.
Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City joined them but were a different proposition entirely and there are parallels with United which they can learn from. The former Blades boss clinched the second automatic promotion place, playing sound, no-nonesense football, suited to his players limitations and which trumped the passing and movement of Fulham.
Excluding Tottenham who spent nothing, Cardiff operated on the third smallest budget (approx £35m) in the top tier, that’s £15m more than Wilder is reported to have at his disposal. Enduring a tough season, Cardiff nevertheless fought to the end. They rallied before losing out in a survival dog-fight with Brighton, but were undone by poor home form, aided by a severe shortage of firepower.
Cardiff fans witnessed 11 defeats, six wins and two draws at home, and only 34 goals scored throughout the league season. Warnock, meanwhile, now 70, remains a hero in the Welsh capital where fans appreciate his whole-hearted commitment. A major reason why he remains in charge having been invited to stay for the the final year of his contract and help find a successor.
Just as Cardiff discovered in the top flight, for the Blades opportunities are going to be far fewer this coming season, so home form, resolute defending and clinical finishing when chances are presented will all be at a premium. Especially against those clubs not in the top six.
Team spirit the Blades have in abundance. Organisation, too. Reliable firepower, however, costs money, particularly at top level. Without it, as Cardiff proved, there is almost an inevitability about one’s fate and the Blades manager, for the time being at least, is being short changed once more.
Starting to feel anxious again? Maybe, but as long as Chris Wilder is at the helm I think we can live with it.