The season for Sheffield United began in Bournemouth in August 2019 and finished down on the South Coast at Southampton almost a year later. It was a season which will go down in history at Bramall Lane as the Blades delivered their first ever top-half Premier League finish and their highest ranking in the top flight since 1974/75. The comeback kid returned to English football’s elite after 13 years as if it had never been away, and delivered one of the most sensational stories in recent Premier League history.
Odds on favourites for relegation. Tipped by a very long list of pundits for an immediate return to the Championship. Told to expect annihilation if they persisted with their ground-breaking system of overlapping centre-backs. United were underestimated. And during the tenure of Chris Wilder, every single question that’s been asked of his team has been answered emphatically. After all, in a highly pressurised and intense promotion race in the second tier in 2018/19, the Blades won 15 of their final 23 games by an aggregate scoreline of 31-1 and lost only twice.
United maintained that resilient streak this season in the Premier League, finishing with the best defensive record outside the top three having conceded only 39 goals. Manchester United loanee Dean Henderson, centre-backs Jack O’Connell, John Egan and Chris Basham, and wing-backs Enda Stevens and George Baldock all excelled after stepping up from the Championship. In midfield, Wilder adapted to life in the Premier League with a smart tweak: out went the number 10 role, and in came a third central midfielder alongside John Fleck and Ollie Norwood. That meant greater responsibility on the shoulders of John Lundstram, a player on the fringes of the team the season prior but integral to it this year, chipping in with five goals from 25 starts. Sander Berge signed in January to add further strength in that department and began to justify the Blades spending a club-record fee on him.
Wilder also continued to deploy two strikers, with summer arrivals Oli McBurnie and Lys Mousset both netting six goals. David McGoldrick’s output was far greater than his two league goals would suggest as he proved difficult for opposing defences to pick up and added valuable creativity and work rate, whilst there was still space for club legend Billy Sharp.
The manager himself finished as runner-up in the LMA Manager of the Year to Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp, an award that Wilder won last season, and his achievements thoroughly deserve to rank him as one of the very best in the business.
It was Sharp who kicked off the Premier League journey for the Blades, the captain’s late equaliser at Bournemouth on the opening day sparking wild celebrations in the away end. A week later and Lundstram’s finish ensured a winning start as top-flight football returned to the Lane against Crystal Palace. An early comeback 2-2 draw at Chelsea and 2-0 victory at Everton gave the travelling Blades plenty to cheer about, although Wilder’s honest approach to press conferences was apparent as he called for more of a cutting edge as decent performances at home to Leicester City, Southampton and Liverpool all ended in defeats by the odd goal.
October kicked off the start of a seven-game unbeaten run. Mousset’s close-range winner made the Monday night visit of Arsenal one to remember and saw United put down a marker. The next home game saw the Blades at their brilliant best as Mousset laid on assists for Lundstram twice and Fleck once in a 3-0 blitz of Burnley, and the visit of Manchester United saw them showcase their fearless approach. They deservedly led 2-0 before the visitors produced a comeback few had foreseen as three goals in the space of ten minutes gave them the lead, yet there was still time for McBurnie to pounce in injury time and earn a share of the spoils. The run also featured impressive displays and useful 1-1 draws from trips to West Ham United, Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers. The trip to Spurs was notable for being Mauricio Pochettino’s last in charge of the hosts, and it could have been even better for United but for an infamous VAR decision which saw an equaliser from McGoldrick ruled out after a check of almost four minutes as Lundstram was deemed offside by the barest of margins in the build-up.
Wilder’s side bounced back from a surprise defeat to Newcastle United at Bramall Lane with consecutive wins over Norwich City, Aston Villa and Brighton & Hove Albion which had them a remarkable fifth in the table at Christmas.
An unbeaten start on the road came to an end in the final outing of 2019 with a controversial 2-0 defeat at Manchester City, and a loss by the same scoreline followed two days later at Liverpool. But a 1-0 win over West Ham United on a Friday night in South Yorkshire had United back on track, with VAR for once shining favourably on Wilder’s side as Robert Snodgrass’ late equaliser was ruled out for an earlier handball by Declan Rice. Fleck’s late leveller at Arsenal earned another point against one of the “big six”, and they pushed City all the way at the Lane three days later – the contest only settled by a magical Kevin De Bruyne pass converted by Sergio Aguero.
A hard-earned 1-0 victory at Crystal Palace in February ensured United would finish the season unbeaten in London, and a 1-1 draw at home to Brighton was sandwiched between wins against Bournemouth and Norwich at Bramall Lane. Good progress was also made in the FA Cup as a rotated side came through ties with AFC Fylde, Millwall and Reading to reach the quarter-finals.
When Sharp’s diving header proved enough for three points against the Canaries on 7 March, a sell-out crowd was present at the Lane to watch their side with reportedly the lowest wage bill in the league move up to joint fifth and unbelievably stay in touch with the top four and the Champions League qualification spots – with just ten games to go.
Yet at the same time the world as we knew it was changing. The Covid-19 pandemic sent most of the planet into lockdown, and the inevitable suspension of the Premier League came on 13 March. After weeks of uncertainty, its return was announced for 17 June – and the eyes of the world would be on the Blades as restart began with their game in hand, a visit to Aston Villa. But this was not the Premier League as we knew it, with the strict protocols in place for players and coaching staff and all games being played behind closed doors a reflection of the world we now live in.
The connection between the United players and supporters is as strong as it is anywhere across the country, but for the final ten games, the Blades would have to adapt to the circumstances. That process might have been made easier but for more technology woes at Villa Park, an unprecedented goal-line technology error failing to award a clear goal for Norwood and VAR failing to overturn the mistake as the game finished goalless.
Uncharacteristic Blades performances followed in 3-0 defeats at Newcastle and Manchester United, and the FA Cup run ended with an agonising stoppage time defeat at home to eventual winners Arsenal.
United were now playing catchup in their battle for European football, but under Wilder, they answered any questions asked of them. An impressive 3-1 dismantling of Tottenham was followed by a respectable 1-1 draw at Burnley, and Egan’s 93rd minute winner at home to Wolves meant the dream was very much alive. Chelsea were the next visitors to the Steel City, and were humbled 3-0 in one of the performances of the season. McGoldrick finally grabbed his richly deserved first Premier League goal in that one, and added a second later in the game, which helped lift the Blades into sixth with just three games remaining.
But for the first time during the campaign, injuries were beginning to take their toll, and cramming the final ten fixtures into the space of five and a half weeks caught up with the Blades in the end as they lost their final three matches 2-0 at Leicester City, 1-0 at home to Everton and 3-1 at Southampton.
Had Wilder’s team brought European football to Bramall Lane for the first time, it would have had to go down as one of the biggest achievements in Premier League history. And they were so close to pulling it off.
But if there is one disappointment from an extraordinary campaign, that can’t be it.. These players, Wilder and assistant manager Alan Knill will go down in Blades folklore for what they have achieved. The disappointment would be that 30,000 plus Unitedites couldn’t be on the final leg of the journey with them. A full house would have raised the roof when Egan headed home against Wolves and Wilder sprinted down the touchline, and the atmosphere against Spurs and Chelsea would have been one to savour. The ovation after the final game of the season at the Lane would have been one of pure appreciation of everyone’s efforts.
Player of the season could justifiably go to seven or eight Blades regulars, but Chris Basham would be a very worthy winner. One of the few players in the squad with Premier League experience (although that consisted of 21 games for Bolton Wanderers and Blackpool and last came back in 2010/11), Basham started all 38 matches and showed his defensive worth with his aerial dominance and strength in the tackle which helped his side to 13 clean sheets. He also proved he had the mobility and fitness necessary to play as an overlapping/underlapping centre-back, ghosting into the opposing penalty area on many an occasion. Recently extending his contract to 2022 is great news for the Blades.
Dean Henderson would be richly deserving of young player of the season. His 13 clean sheets was bettered only by Ederson and Nick Pope, and his excellent shot-stopping and command of his area has pushed him into England contention. He has returned to Old Trafford and could challenge David de Gea or attract interest from elsewhere, and although the Blades are reportedly seeking to bring Bournemouth shot-stopper Aaron Ramsdale back to the club, his loan spells at the Lane have served both parties very well and they would love to have him back for another.
Goal of the season is reserved for Enda Stevens at home to Brighton. After a corner was partially dealt with by the visitors, Stevens’ first touch to set himself was excellent and he then thrashed a stunning volley into the roof of the net. Honourable mentions could go to the 23-pass move at Tottenham which paved the way for George Baldock to equalise, Lys Mousset’s precise long ranger at home to Manchester United and John Egan’s terrific half volley to equalise at Burnley.
Game of the season should go to the 3-3 draw at home to Manchester United. 90+ minutes of pure entertainment at a raucous Bramall Lane in November. The Blades caught their opponents cold, Mousset giving them a torrid time as he was instrumental in John Fleck’s opener, then doubled the lead just after half-time with a fine finish. The hosts looked in control, but three goals in the space of seven minutes from Brandon Williams, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford incredibly turned the game on its head. The points looked to be heading back across the Pennines, but substitute Oli McBurnie’s injury-time equaliser sent the Lane into raptures – and again for a second time after a nervy VAR check for handball.
Performance of the season goes to the 3-0 win over Burnley in November. The triumphs over Tottenham and Chelsea might rank as bigger victories, but the first half, especially against the Clarets, was the Blades at their absolute best. O’Connell and Stevens bombed forward into high positions down the left and Basham and Baldock likewise down the right, Mousset laid on three assists with him and McGoldrick too hot to handle, and a brace from Lundstram and a clever finish from Fleck blew away a side notorious for their solidity.