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Sunderland & Sheffield United - what lessons can we learn from the resurgent Blades?

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A closer look at a club who fell through the leagues and worked their way back - what lessons can Sunderland learn from Chris Wilder’s resurgent Sheffield United side?

Sheffield United v Norwich City - Premier League - Bramall Lane Photo by Anthony Devlin/PA Images via Getty Images

To Sunderland supporters who have suffered through the turbulence of the last few years the situation may seem hopeless. It is certainly bleak.

Nobody in this city needed a Netflix documentary to tell us how screwed we were, that our finances had spun out of control, that our squad was disjointed and disheartened or that the constant change of manager was detrimental to any chance of stability. The problems are glaringly obvious and, combined with how quickly we have fallen through the leagues, the situation feels unprecedented. But it is not.

Other clubs have bounced back from situations almost as dire as ours.

Sheffield United and Sunderland share some similarities beyond the red and white stripes and a shared heritage of being born out of 19th century industrial towns. We have similar attendance figures, averaging at 30,000. It’s been a fair while since either club won a trophy (46 years longer for Sheffield than for us but hey, who’s counting?). Sheffield United shared a similar fate to ours when, in 2007, they were relegated from the Premier League.

The 06/07 season ended in disaster for Sheffield. Top scorer Rob Hulse broke a leg, and the subsequent goal drought dragged the club into a relegation battle that they only narrowly lost on goal difference. Neil Warnock resigned as manager and the club went down. It would be 12 years before the Blades would return to top-flight football.

Soccer - FA Barclays Premiership - Chelsea v Sheffield United - Stamford Bridge Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC Via Getty Images

Those were a turbulent 12 years, that saw 11 managers come and go, as many as 3 in one season. They saw leading scorer Ched Evans jailed. They saw Gary Speed join the club only to leave within weeks to manage the Welsh national team (though at least he wasn’t immediately sacked to add salt to the wound a la Allardyce). You don’t have to have lived in Sheffield during those years to imagine the talk among the supporters.

A club the size of theirs, with their fans and their history? Too big for the Championship. Definitely too big for League One. But that was where they ended up, due to poor transfer business and inconsistent form on the pitch.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Sheffield United were not as bad as Sunderland. Compare their narrow margin of relegation to the way we clung on like limpets to the bottom of the Premier League until we were unceremoniously scraped off. Sheffield managed a couple of seasons in the Championship before sinking into League One compared to our headlong plummet in that now infamous season of back-to-back relegations.

By now those among you familiar with Sheffield United will be saying, “Yes but then they were bought by a Saudi Prince who poured money into the club.” True, but not the whole story. Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (to give him his Sunday name) took up his 50% stake in 2013.

The money he poured in bought three cohorts of transfers, none of whom got the team out of League One, and the services of proven managers such as Nigel Clough and Nigel Adkins, all of whom failed to secure anything more than mid-table mediocrity.

Sheffield United v Norwich City - Premier League Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

Promotion to the Championship for Sheffield United had to wait until the 2016/17 season. Chris Wilder was brought in as a boyhood fan and former player who had a strong connection to the club and an emotional investment in seeing it succeed.

The owner had, by this point, grown tired of throwing money at players who could not make the necessary impact and so Wilder relied heavily on free transfers to shore up his squad ahead of the campaign. He favoured experience over youth - the average age of the squad was 27. His decision to make returning local boy Billy Sharp team captain was a wise move.

That anaemic summer business transformed Sheffield United from mid-table to champions within one season with Sharp scoring 30 goals. A season in the Championship (in which they finished 10th) bought time to invest further and to bring in loan players of quality from the likes of Spurs, Chelsea and Man Utd.

The following season they were promoted again and, prior to the pandemic, the Blades have given an excellent account of themselves in the Premier League once more.

Sheffield United spent six seasons in League One, facing inconsistency on the pitch, controversy off the pitch, unsettled ownership, a string of managers and a battle to reduce costs in response to life in the third tier.

Who does that remind you of?

What turned it around for them was that magical formula; a prolific goal-scorer, a competent team and a manager who could get the best out of both. Armed with this combination, Sheffield climbed three leagues in three seasons.

Our future is bleak but not hopeless. We are still searching for a magical formula of our own but if we can find it, we can rise as fast as we fell. Yes, we need an honest, unflinching look at how we got here. Yes, we need clarity and good sense from the people in a position to change things. But we also need to look at what other clubs did in similar circumstances and remind ourselves that we can come back from this, like those other clubs before us.