Move over Leicester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers – there is a new underdog in the Premier League. Sitting sixth in the Premier League table, Sheffield United have defied all expectations this season, having been touted as relegation favourites at the beginning of the campaign. And most of their success has to be owed to Chris Wilder and Prince Abdullah.
The Blades were languishing in the third tier of English football when they secured promotion back to the Championship in the 2016–17 season under the management of lifelong fan and former Blades player Chris Wilder, securing 100 points to win the League One title. After finishing tenth in their first Championship season, the team enjoyed a successful campaign the following year, achieving automatic promotion to the Premier League. The Blades spent most of the season in the top six of the Championship, fighting for automatic promotion until clinching second place over Leeds United with a game to spare. This was the first time in 12 years that Sheffield came back in the Premier League.
While many discounted the might of Sheffield, their progress this season is a subtle reminder of the competitive nature of the Premier League. Having amassed 36 points in 25 games, Wilder’s men find themselves above Manchester United by a single point as well as Arsenal, by five points. They beat Arsenal at home while registering draws against Chelsea, Tottenham and the Red Devils. All this with the lowest wage bracket in the league.
Playing an effective brand of passing football, many of the Sheffield players were a part of the promotion-winning campaign, with Wilder understanding the effectiveness of the bond of the players. The manager’s faith in castaways is also a testimony to their hard work, the biggest example being Everton reject John Lundstram.
After playing in the League One and League Two in various loan spells, Lundstram was brought in by Wilder during Sheffield’s first championship campaign and instantly cemented his place in the team. In three years, he has made 72 appearances for the Blades and has featured in all but one of Sheffield’s matches in the Premier League this season. In August 2019, he scored his first goal in the Premier League when he netted the only goal in a 1–0 victory over Crystal Palace. It ensured that he scored in each of the top four divisions of English football.
The passion of the players for the club is the key component of their successful promotion campaigns. John Fleck, Chris Basham, and Billy Sharp are some of the stalwarts who were with the club since their time in League One, while many players from their championship-promotion winning season have been retained as well.
Other examples of such players include Lys Mousset, Muhamed Besic and Oliver Norwood among others. Add the quality signings made by Wilder in January shows an air of creativity built around their attacking play. Norwegian playmaker Sander Berge, signed from KRC Genk, was one of the best players in Belgium and is highly rated in the Norway national team as well.
If current form is anything to go by, then the Blades stand at pole position to qualify above three of the ‘Elite six’ clubs. While both the Foxes and Wolves have fizzled out in terms of their performances of late, Sheffield have stayed in the fringes, picking up draws if not wins. They stand the challenge of holding on to their best players, but if they can do so, they might just establish themselves as the next best thing in English Football.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Oli Scarff