Monday , February 17 2020

Sheffield United: European football a realistic prize for Chris Wilder’s side

Sheffield United have taken four points off Arsenal this season, beaten Everton and also drew with Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester United and Wolves

Chris Wilder will certainly not say so but Sheffield United’s incredible story could yet have a European ending.

Wilder’s team, in League One three seasons ago, are fifth in the Premier League with 12 games left and dreaming of qualifying for a major European competition for the first time in the club’s 130-year history.

Only leaders Liverpool have conceded fewer goals and fourth-placed Chelsea are only two points ahead, but the Blades boss has so far refused to contemplate continental football.

“Europe is not something we’re thinking about,” said Wilder.

A previous question got this response: “Europe? It might be the end-of-season trip to Magaluf again. It was always the norm for the older generation, you’d see 20 teams out there in May so that might be the same for us.”

But with half of their remaining matches against teams in the bottom half, it may well be Madrid and Milan on the players’ minds soon, not just Majorca.

While Wilder stays silent on Europe, the club’s fans aren’t.

After John Lundstram’s late goal gave the Blades a dramatic 2-1 win over Bournemouth at Bramall Lane on Sunday, supporters chanted “we’re going abroad, we’re going abroad”, followed by the much more catchy “que sera, sera, whatever will be will be, we’re going to Napoli, que sera, sera”.

‘It’s hard to convey how bad we were’

It was not meant to be like this.

Sheffield United were odds-on to be relegated in their first season back in the top flight after a 12-year absence, their chances of a top-six finish rated at 100-1.

By comparison, you get the same price on Pep Guardiola being the next Manchester United manager, Switzerland winning Euro 2020 and Kylian Mbappe joining Wolves.

Supporters could be excused for rubbing their eyes in disbelief at the club’s turnaround.

They went down from the Premier League on the final day of 2006-07, spent four seasons in the Championship then dropped into the third tier, with their finish of 11th in League One under Nigel Adkins in 2015-16 their lowest in 33 years.

For a club with a proud history, having won the top-flight title in 1898 and finishing sixth in 1975, they were desperate times.

Then Wilder, a former Blades ball boy, player and captain, took over and two promotions in three seasons followed.

Chris Wilder began his managerial career at ninth-tier Alfreton Town in the Northern Counties Football League, before six years with Halifax Town, five at Oxford United and two at Northampton Town

“It’s hard to convey how bad we were before Chris took over – it was a chore to attend games,” said Sam Parry, editor of DEM Blades fanzine.

“There were times when we lacked success despite our best efforts, and times where effort itself was at a premium.

“He understood the club, came in and saved us. He’s arguably the best post-war Sheffield United manager and this is comfortably the best Sheffield United team I’ve ever seen.”

Most clean sheets in 2019-20
11 – Liverpool
9 – Sheffield United, Burnley
8 – Leicester, Watford, Manchester City

‘We were favourites to go down and look at us now’

With the Blades on 39 points, Wilder insists their first target is 40 – seen as the benchmark needed to stay up – but goalkeeper Dean Henderson says the players are determined to go further.

“If we get to 40 we aren’t stopping,” he told BBC Sport. “People might think we’d be happy, but we want to fight for Europe – try to get into the Europa League and if we get there why not the Champions League?

“People would laugh at us if we’d said that before – we were favourites to go down and look at us now.”

Dean Henderson: Sheffield United goalkeeper says Blades targeting Europe

The £22m January signing of 21-year-old Norway midfielder Sander Berge showed the club’s intention to keep pushing forward and this was the fifth time they had broken their transfer record in seven months.

He impressed with an elegant home debut against Bournemouth and the fans have an incredibly catchy chant for Berge, sung along to She’s Electric by Oasis, which shows where the Blades’ fans expectations are now: “He’s Norwegian, next to Norwood and Fleck he’s the reason, we’ll be playing in Europe next season, his name is Sander Berge.”

An adventure worth going on?

Sheffield United’s entire European involvement consists of one season in the Anglo-Italian Cup – a competition in the 1990s involving second-tier sides from England and Italy.

Only the most hardcore supporters, and barely anyone under 35, will remember the 2-2 draw in Piacenza or the 4-1 victory at Cesena in 1994 as the Blades went out in the group phase.

Indeed, the 1,827 that watched the game against Ancona remains the lowest attendance at Bramall Lane in modern times.

Sheffield United have not finished in the top six of the top flight since 1974-75

Do the Blades want Europe this time around, and the extra burden placed on a playing squad, one in which Jack O’Connell, George Baldock and Enda Stevens have played every minute of every league match?

Former Scotland winger Pat Nevin, speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live, said it would be “special” if the Blades got into Europe but thinks they would need to sign more players.

“It’s going to be a big problem next season,” said Nevin. “It’s not easy to do that – you really need two squads to do it.

“Given the way they’ve added in January though, if they find themselves in Europe next season and add three or four more then that will probably be enough.”

In the past 10 years, on only 10 out of 28 occasions have a club finished higher in a season when they played in Europa League qualifying or group action than they did the previous campaign.

Two seasons ago Burnley had played six Europa League qualifying ties by the end of August, failed to make the group phase and finished 15th in the Premier League, eight places worse off than the year before.

In 2012-13, Newcastle went from the play-off round to the Europa League quarter-finals, but the 14 games that took was also one of the reasons they finished 16th in the Premier League, 11 spots lower than in 2011-12.

But it is not always doom and gloom.

Wolves are in the last 32 of this season’s Europa League, only four points worse off than the Blades and only six adrift of Chelsea in a Champions League spot.

Parry thinks his club’s fans would enjoy the adventure and the team would “give the competition a good go”.

He added: “I hear ‘you don’t want Europe’. I understand Europe can damage your chances of maintaining top-flight status, but the majority of fans could think of nothing better than travelling to support the Blades in Europe.

“Other than friendlies we’ve never been there, so I’m picturing away trips to Naples and Qarabag, fans ingratiating themselves to the locals by drinking them out of ale and singing well into balmy evenings.”

Wilder has spoken of turning “a really good story into a fantastic one” and if they keep this form up then even he could start dreaming of Europe.