Following promotion to the Premier League, the 2019/20 campaign was a roaring success for the Blades. Despite a staggering finish United finished ninth and at one point looked dark horses for stealing a Europa League spot. However, the 2020/21 season would take a dramatic u-turn. We take a closer look at how Sheffield United’s season unfolded.
The Blades supporters were dubious for the start of the season. Unable to attend matches, fans were left to watch in agony from their sofa.
Chris Wilder slowly dipped into the transfer market. There had been several fringe players who had left the club, paving the way for fresh faces, though they were thankful that none of the first-team squad had left the club, with exception to Dean Henderson, who returned to Manchester United following the conclusion of his season’s long loan spell. Ben Heneghan, Ricky Holmes, Leon Clarke, Mark Duffy, Keiron Freeman, Nathan Thomas, and Ravel Morrison all exited the club.
With Henderson unlikely to return the Blades swooped in and acquired Wes Foderingham, a free transfer from Rangers, and Aaron Ramsdale from AFC Bournemouth, for £18.5million. Along with Simon Moore, and Michael Verrips, the club had four recognised goalkeepers on their books. They further strengthened with the acquisitions of Derby County duo Max Lowe, and Jayden Bogle in a combined £11million fee.
They also brought in Ismaila Coulibaly for £1million from Norwegian outfit Sarpsborg 08, before shipping him out on loan to Belgian club Beershot for the season. In a swap deal with West Bromwich Albion, Callum Robinson joined the Baggies, whilst Oliver Burke joined in the other direction. Meanwhile, Ethan Ampadu arrived from Chelsea on loan for the season.
United began pre-season with a bout of friendlies. They had intended on started the programme in Scotland at Dundee United, however, despite leading 1-0 at half-time on 25th August, due to a water-logged pitch and high winds – the game was abandoned. Before returning to South Yorkshire, Chris Wilder’s side beat a Hearts of Midlothian side 1-0 at their training camp. John Fleck netted the games’ only goal against a Hearts side that featured former on-loan Blades defender Aidy White.
They added further friendly results with a 2-0 victory at Derby County with goals from Ben Osborn, and Billy Sharp, whilst the latter was on the score-sheet again, when the Blades drew 2-2 at Bramall Lane against Preston North End. The skipper finished from the penalty spot after John Lundstram had scored United’s first goal.
September to December
The new Premier League season started later than usual, presumably due to the late finish last season. United opened the season on 14th September at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers. Little did Blades supporters know that it would be the Molineux club that would begin and end their season of woe.
Many supporters believed that the season would pick up but results failed to impress. The Blades lost key defender Jack O’Connell to an injury that would require an operation and rule the former Brentford man out for the remainder of the season. United finally scored their first goal of the campaign after four matches, though David McGoldrick’s strike at Arsenal wasn’t enough to secure a point. However, matchday five saw the Blades claim their first point of the season at home to Fulham, drawing 1-1 but could have quite easily ended in defeat after Aleksandar Mitrovic missed a penalty that may have awarded the visitors maximum points.
Chris Wilder attempted to ease the scoring shortage with the arrival of Rhian Brewster from Liverpool, a marquee signing that supporters would consider a flop after he failed to score a single goal all season. Injuries continued to cause havoc with selection. It was rare to name a regular back three defence throughout the season. As a result, the results were few and far between and from picking that point up at home to Fulham, had to wait until 20th December, when they agonisingly drew 1-1 at Brighton, until they picked up another point. They ended 2020 in a 1-0 defeat at Burnley, and with sixteen league matches played were still waiting for their first victory of the season.
January to March
The New Year gave new hope, though the chairman, Prince Abdullah, refused to allow Chris Wilder any further investments during the January transfer window – rebuffing his statement before Christmas, giving the gaffer full financial backing in the months ahead. One way or another he was true to his word, as the club got through the first month of 2021 without recruiting any new players.
They had kick-started 2021 with a dismal defeat to Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, but it was their involvement in the FA Cup that gave them a new lease of life. They despatched Bristol Rovers 3-2 in a frantic match, and then, after eighteen Premier League match, the Blades, finally, recorded their first league victory. Billy Sharp’s second-half penalty at home to Newcastle gave United a much-needed boost.
Despite losing the following game 3-1 at home to Tottenham, Wilder’s Wizards produced one of the shocks of the season when they claimed a dramatic 2-1 victory at Manchester United, with goals from Kean Bryan and Oli Burke settling the difference. United added a victory over relegation strugglers West Bromwich Albion before another slide saw them lose the next four consecutive games.
In the FA Cup, however, the Blades blossomed. Having beaten Bristol Rovers in round three, the S2 club saw off Plymouth Argyle (2-1), and Bristol City (1-0), at Bramall Lane – landing themselves with a Quarter-Final clash with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
On 14th March, following an agonisingly few days for its supporters, the news was made official that Chris Wilder left the club, ending a four and a half year reign that had seen the club climb from League One to the Premier League. It was a bitter disappointment as supporters had hoped that he would remain a manager the following season. Under 23’s coach, Paul Heckingbottom was drafted in as Interim manager, and his first match in charge saw the Blades lose 5-0 at Leicester – their heaviest defeat of the season.
April to May
Heckingbottom had been left with the responsibility of picking up a depleted team. An unlikely, but possible run, would have seen the Blades exit the bottom three for the first time this season, but the fifteen-point gap with eleven games remaining was always going to be a struggle. Having lost at Leicester, the Blades also exited the FA Cup at Chelsea though, despite losing 2-0, gave the Blues a battle, and had finishing being consistent, then they might have advanced into the semi-finals.
Back in the league, the Blades continued to flounder, and on 17 April, relegation was confirmed following an undeserved 1-0 defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Having lost to Wolves on the opening day of the season, it seemed as though this is where the journey would end, however, there were still six league matches remaining.
United made the best use of the remaining games, ironically, they would win three of those games against Brighton, at Everton, and at home to Burnley on the final day of the season (all 1-0). Except being away from home, the victory at Goodison Park was impressive with 17-year-old Daniel Jebbison netting on his full debut and setting a Premier League record at the same time. The victory over Burnley was made a little sweeter with supporters being allowed to attend matches for the first time in fourteen months.
To suggest that this season has been dire is something of an understatement. Perhaps some solace can be taken that supporters haven’t been able to attend matches, though many believe that the team would have performed better with a crowd cheering them on. The Blades recorded 29 losses (17 were by a margin of one goal), whilst they lost just twelve the previous season, proving that the defence, which had been makeshift through the majority of the campaign, was a blow to the club. They also struggled to find a talisman. David McGoldrick scored eight of the twenty scored all season (fourteen were scored by the strikers).
Looking Ahead To Next Season
Blades supporters will be praying for an instant return, something that is easily said than done. I believe the club needs to get it right in and off the pitch before attempting any promotion push. Of course, it is too soon to tell, not all of the positions have been finalised but the Blades will firstly need to appoint a new manager (or coach), and find some stability in key areas. Ideally finding a proven goalscorer can be tricky but one is needed, as well as recruiting an attacking-midfielder to aid in supply with these goals.