The city of Sheffield has now had both professional clubs relegated in the same season – the seemingly impossible, and in the cradle of professional football. So what’s up in the Steel City?
For those who know the name well but not what lies behind it, Sheffield is up there as one of the very largest British cities, built on and around its seven hills, with all the characteristics of a set of interlinked villages, and largely minding its own business. 60% of the city is green space, it’s home to the largest community of artists and designers outside London, has a huge University community and it’s full of self-deprecating, friendly locals with their dry and quirky sense of humour – quite unlike other big cities in the North, brash Leeds, self-confident Manchester, and vibrant Liverpool. Sheffield folk don’t want to be known as too loud or too cocky. So is it too nice a place to compete in the big wide world, tucked away as it is in the southwest corner of Yorkshire?
The journey for United and Wednesday this season has been all-too-familiar for those who have followed either club over the years – good reasons for optimism soon dashed by the inevitable reality of the unforgiving world of football. But why Sheffield, and why does the city seem to breed perennially underachieving football teams?
After a long tradition as a centre for steel and cutlery manufacture, it has had to reinvent itself over the last decades since the ‘Thatcher effect’ and the pricing of Far East suppliers forced factory closures by the score. Many people only associate the city now with the World Snooker championship played at the Crucible Theatre. Not a resounding affirmation of years of toil and creativity.
In line with other big cities, you might expect continuing success at the highest levels on the football field – after all, the city is steeped in football tradition with the oldest club in the world (Sheffield FC – and still going strong in the Northern Premier League), and the third oldest professional club (originally The Wednesday Football Club), with both United and Wednesday proving that they’re able to sustain a near 30,000 home gate with a moderately successful team.
United’s demise could be rated as something of a surprise after their 9th place in the Premier League in season 2019/20. But an unforgiveable lack of investment in quality players in the close season quickly rendered them non-competitive, with a lack of necessary class and alternative strategies to that which worked for them the previous season. 2020/21 has seen a freefall descent to relegation, a situation which must have galled their energetic and proven manager Chris Wilder so much, that he ended up waving goodbye to the club he supported, played for, and managed after a ‘breakdown in his relationship with the club’s owner’. There’s only ever one winner in that situation, but they never saw any value in hanging on to their greatest asset.
I have lived with this situation for many years, being Sheffield-born and a supporter of Wednesday – and a past admirer (but never a supporter) of United.
United’s current problems seem straightforward, as the investment-focused Premier League takes no prisoners and waits for no man.
As regards Wednesday, I posed the ‘Why Sheffield?’ question on the excellent fan forum Owlstalk and received a welter of genuinely useful (and printable) suggestions and comments, and I’m grateful to all those who showed interest – undoubtedly hoping to unearth the golden nugget, and help put the club and city on a fast-forward track to some consistent success.
Owlstalk seems to mirror traditional British football support, as, in a very recent census of its membership, 90+% were white, middle-age males, with the majority living in the local area. But these are the ones inevitably best placed to pronounce verdicts on what has and hasn’t happened over the years.
Sheffield United’s recent experiences mirror those of Wednesday in so many ways that it’s easy to bracket the two together, and as one set of statistics for the last 50 years show, both clubs have spent 26 years in the 2nd tier, Wednesday have been in the top tier a little more than United, and a little less in the 3rd tier – very much a B- exam result.
There have been scattered flashes of tantalising success, such as 2nd tier Wednesday winning the Rumbelows Cup in 1991 against Man U, two Cup Finals against Arsenal (losing them both), and 3rd place in the last season of Division 1 in ’92. United can justifiably point to the success of Chris Wilder’s management with their dizzy rise from the middle of the 3rdtier in 2017, to 9th place in the Premier League last season.
Supporters of both clubs must have thought at the time ‘at last we’ve got it right and we here to stay at the top table’, but it wasn’t to be. So, why? How can clubs like Burnley, Brighton and Crystal Palace crack the code, and why can’t a Sheffield club do a Liverpool, or a Manchester?
United’s issue of a lack of investment seems to be a straightforward one, but there is still much commonality in the issues affecting both clubs.
Wednesday were always going to have an uphill struggle starting this season on -12 points due to accounting irregularities (later reduced on appeal to -6 points). Interestingly the blame for failure isn’t directed primarily at the players. I’ve seen them many times this season, and never did I think they didn’t care, or weren’t fit enough, or lacked basic skills. They have been inconsistent to a fault and prone to individual errors at vital moments, but is that due to too much tinkering by the four managers they have had in charge of them this last season? I would question why the managers have largely set them up to defend rather than attack. Never likely to win friends or matches, this certainly didn’t play to the strengths of those selected to represent the club on the field. So why in 2020/21 season, has the team on the field lost 27 points from winning positions, and (just let this fact sink in), won only one single point in a game where they have fallen behind (the last match vs. Derby). Those two facts are staggering in their own right and would justify much finger pointing at the team, but they indicate much deeper club-wide issues.
People usually buy football clubs to turn a profit in the future. They think they’re good enough to do that. Some do, some don’t. Anyone from outside this country who buys outright or has a major share in a club and who is not aware of the club’s history, culture and customs, may well be on a hiding to nothing. Dejphon Chansiri (SWFC owner) seemed to know nothing about SWFC when he bought the club from Milan Mandaric in 2015, but had the money due his family’s track record in the Thai fishing industry – hardly a guarantee success on the football field.
Credit to him for the new playing surface, appointing the charismatic Carlos Carvalhal as manager, and pitching in with a wad of cash to buy some name players, albeit some who were sliding down from the top of their game and some who spent more time sliding onto the treatment table. His first two seasons at the helm brought a play-off final vs Hull (lost 1-0), and the playoffs the following season (lost to Huddersfield). At that point the good times, such as they were, stopped rolling, and Wednesday now find themselves spending the 2021/22 season in Division 1. Mr Chansiri’s investment has not worked out – and he laid himself open to criticism with his choice of ‘advisors’, when all he had to do upon arriving was to listen to those who understand Sheffield football, and appoint former manager and Wednesday all-round legend Howard Wilkinson – a man thoroughly versed in the club and city culture – as his right hand. If he had, most are certain that there would have been a different story to tell. His own choice of ‘advisors’ seemed bizarre at best, with one of them, Erik Alonso, going on to buy Derby County, Wednesday’s opponents in the final match, andf with whom we vie for a relgation spot.
United’s owner is Prince Abdullah bin Mosa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and like Chansiri, not a local lad, but one who might sniff a return on his investment in due course. There has been friction around the club both before and after his arrival, coming to a head in the High Court. His son-in-law, Prince Musaad, has recently resigned from his role as Chairman. But the true test is how he has invested in his acquisition. The investments he has overseen on the playing field, have been very poor, resulting in swift relegation back to the Championship, but with the benefit of parachute payments to soften the blow. They should have enough about them to ensure no further drop from there.
With the current situation, this is the real test of their leadership and those whom they entrust with the day-to-day running of the clubs. It should not be a money-centric view either – it’s a root and branch exercise for both of them this time.
What makes for a successful city these days? Certainly being in the centre of things helps – again, think London, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle with their ‘names’, geographical location and easy transport links. Sheffield is a border city, tucked away in a corner, and put at an economic disadvantage. The M1 passes it by, the main river isn’t navigable, it’s on a branch line of the main railway network, but, with a degree of foresight not common in these parts, and with all those hills to contend with, Sheffield did at least build its own airport from scratch and opened it in 1997. It had a London City Airport length of runway, too short to ensure success matched the ambition. It closed in 2008 and the site was sold for £1. It says a lot about Sheffield and its city fathers.
The City authorities seem to regard local football with distrust and even hostility, and relations with the local police has been distinctly icy since the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. There’s no forward plan to include football as part of any ‘Invest in Sheffield’ PR campaign. It has been cursed with the ‘sleeping giant’ tag for longer than I can remember. Both clubs can rely on good attendances when times are good, enough to fund a decent club with decent investment levels, and attract the money men. Why would one want to buy Bournemouth with a ground capacity of just over 11,000? – but that’s another story…
So, Sheffield is a fine place to live and work but not a wealthy city with its own industry or reputation in leading-edge finance, sports or media, and also in a relative backwater. Should that influence sustained success on the pitch?
All supporters say that their clubs are victims of the whims of the footballing gods. Sheffield Wednesday can lay justifiable claim to having angered the gods as much as any club, since the 1950s. Here are just a few fascinating examples of fate lending a hand along the way:
- Derek Dooley, the most prolific scorer of the early ‘50s and Wednesday legend, suffered a freak accident on the pitch, having to undergo a leg amputation
- 3 players found guilty of match-fixing in ’64, and banned for life
- Managers like Harry Catterick and Howard Wilkinson were allowed to leave – both going on to success with Everton and Leeds respectively
- The Hillsborough Disaster in 1989
- Bringing Eric Cantona to England in the first place, only to say that he wasn’t what we needed, after a trial
- Relegated from the top flight just before the big money and parachute payments came in
- Securing the services of the proven Steve Bruce in 2019, only to have him walk out 6 months later to become manager of his boyhood club, Newcastle United
- Latest manager Darren Moore has been off work COVID infection and complications for the last and most important matches of the season
Wednesday have made some good decisions as well, such as buying Chris Waddle when at the peak of his powers, but these seem to be overwhelmed by the indifferent ones, affecting all parts of the club, with the final nail in the coffin being the points deduction for this season, leaving them tantalisingly short of the number of points necessary to stay up.
So, is the Sheffield Football Crisis down to the teams, club leadership, the city or fate? Take your pick. Optimism will be in short supply next season, but, with some well-thought out strategic decisions taken, Sheffield football could surprise us all by being truly competitive. We supporters live in hope of a bright future – but we aren’t holding our breath.
UPDATE – June 2023
I stand by everything in the foregoing analysis of the state of Sheffield football. Now I find that things are moving on, and please refer to the two closing sentences in the original analysis above – i.e. we could be surprised, but we’re not holding our breath.
Well, we were indeed surprised – Sheffield United, with little investment in players, and rumours galore about the financial standing of the club, did what no-one expected in getting promoted to the golden land of the Premier League. Remarkable and a tribute to a close-knit team which not only excelled in the league, home and away, but also had a fine FA Cup run, including Tottenham Hotspur as a scalp.
This all happened before Wednesday’s ‘fate’ was known. At one point, just before the last international break, they were leading by 5 points with 2 games in hand, and played all of the better teams in L1, so what could possibly go wrong!! Go wrong it did, and big time…notwithstanding a record number of clean sheets, a record number of games unbeaten, and 96 points (a figure which had guaranteed promotion in every other year previously), we managed to come third in L1, resulting in the dreaded play-offs once again. Wednesday do not have a good record in playoffs.
First, a two-legged game against Peterborough, who had scraped into the last playoff place on the final day of the season. They were up for it in the first leg and won 4-0. Cue significant and personal abuse directed towards the Wednesday team, manager and chairman.
The return leg at Hillsborough the following week, against all the odds (and creating a playoff record in the process), Wednesday equalised in the 98th minute to make it 4-4 on aggregate, each side scored again in the 30 minutes’ extra time and Wednesday won in penalties 5-3. Cue mayhem – and a trip to Wembley to play Barnsley , where Wednesday won 1-0 scoring in the 123rd and last minute of extra time, so promotion was won to the Championship – still one league behind Sheffield United but I don’t think that anyone who supports Wednesday is desperately worried about that. One interesting stat is that Wednesday were only ahead in the playoffs for 5 seconds in total over three games (excluding the penalty shoot-out). Barry Bannan, Wednesday captain, was asked when he knew the team were going to beat Peterborough, and he said “the moment the final whistle blew at the end of the first leg”. I love an optimist….
SO, both Sheffield clubs surprised us all by being super-competitive for a change. Bravo!!