Relegated Sheffield United are a Premier League laughing stock – they may be gone for a while

Vinicius Souza and Anel Ahmedhodzic stand with their hands on their hips
Many of Sheffield United's players have failed to impress - Darren Staples/AFP

At some clubs they ban the “R” word during the season, as relegation is unthinkable. But it has been a different story at Sheffield United, where dropping back to the Championship has come off a long run-up and was confirmed at St James’ Park. They have not won two consecutive matches all season and even victory in their final three games will see them rooted in the bottom three.

Back in December, when Chris Wilder was brought back to the club, owner Abdullah bin Mosaad Al Saud spoke publicly about his appointment and was open about looking towards the future beyond their Premier League battle. But after such a disastrous campaign, the question now is whether the Blades will be back anytime soon.

They were in the EFL for 12 years before Wilder got them promoted in 2019, then they spent two years in the Championship before coming up again a year ago. Now the infrastructure of the club will be tested over the summer where there are expected to be changes at Bramall Lane.

Wilder kept the relegation fight going until earlier this month, with draws against Chelsea, Fulham and Bournemouth at least prolonging the battle against the drop. But defeats to Brentford and Burnley – when he said his players “wanted to get out” – meant the faintest hope was gone.

The signs that Wilder was looking to the future were there too. He gave young players a chance to show they could be of value next season in the Championship, none more so than Oliver Arblaster. The 20-year-old was given the captain’s armband against Manchester United this week in a clear sign that he is the future of the club.

Oliver Arblaster applauds the Sheffield United fans
Oliver Arblaster is the future of Sheffield United – if he stays - Matt McNulty/Getty Images

The England Under-20 midfielder has been played in central midfield and put on set-pieces, although it will be inevitable that such a talent will now have big-club vultures circling. If he does get offers that are impossible to refuse, Wilder would surely ask to have him loaned back to continue his rapid development.

But there are almost certain to be sweeping changes, even if Arblaster stays, following relegation. There are 13 first-team players out of contract or ending loans this summer and while there are options on some of them, it is expected there will be departures.

It was two major departures that put the club on the back foot immediately after promotion a year ago. Sander Berge had helped get them back to the Premier League but would not sign a new contract, so was sold to Burnley three days before their Premier League opener. Senegal midfielder Iliman Ndiaye, the driving force behind promotion from the Championship, sealed a dream move to his boyhood club Marseille.

With Prince Abdullah taking pride in keeping the purse-strings tight – and open to selling the club – there was no splurge on new players to keep the Blades up.

Sheffield United owner Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad Al Saud
Sheffield United owner Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad Al Saud is open to selling the club - Action Images

Some of their signings have played regularly, such as Auston Trusty, Vinícius Souza, Gustavo Hamer and Cameron Archer, but the number of Premier League starts for others like Anis Slimane (4), Bénie Traoré (3) and Tom Davies (2) reveal their standing in Wilder’s squad heading into next season.

Having started with a weaker team than in the Championship, there were decent enough performances under Paul Heckingbottom, despite failing to get a first win until November. They were beset by bad luck, such as Chris Basham’s horror injury against Fulham which ruled him out for the season and left him fighting to save his career.

While competitive in many matches, they were prone to collapse and shipped eight goals against Newcastle, then five against Arsenal and Burnley. When Wilder took over, they started a run of matches at Bramall Lane where they lost 5-2, 5-0, 5-0 and 6-0. No team in English football had conceded five or more across four consecutive home games. By the time relegation was confirmed, they had set the record of goals conceded in a 38-game season.

Along the way they have, at times, been the laughing stock of the Premier League. On the pitch they have been fighting between themselves, with Vini Souza and Jack Robinson shoving and swiping at each other when they faced Wolves.

Vini Souza gave a bizarre interview in Brazil where he suggested Sheffield United’s situation at the bottom of the table was holding him back from an international call-up.

Wilder was at the centre of “Sandwich-gate” at Crystal Palace when, in mid-rant at referee Tony Harrington, an assistant official cut across him to “fetch and eat a sandwich”. “I thought it was a complete lack of respect,” Wilder said. “Hopefully he enjoyed his sandwich while he was talking to a Premier League manager.” Wilder was fined £11,500 for his media comments implying referee bias that evening.

Behind the scenes there has been change with Paul Mitchell leaving his role as head of recruitment and Jamie Hoyland coming in. It is hoped that this summer’s dealing will be better than January’s, with Croatian goalkeeper Ivo Grbic coming in from Atletico Madrid but eventually getting dropped. One of Chelsea’s goals in the 2-2 draw went straight down the middle of the net with no deflection and Grbic seemingly in the best possible position. Wilder admitted he thought about subbing Grbic at half-time during the defeat to Burnley.

The hope for Wilder is that he has young players ready for the Championship. The Under-21s defeated rivals Wednesday last week, with Ryan Oné and Louie Marsh scoring, and these are the type of players Wilder could be looking to next season.

“Through good times we all enjoy it and are willing to take that credit,” he said. “And you have to own it and suffer and take responsibility when there is a bit of pain.

“Reflection is massive for me. In terms of a training session, a game, overall game or part of a game. Are we doing the right things medically, on the training ground, in the recruitment department? The things I can control and from a club’s point of view as well.

“There are certain things we haven’t got right. There is humility at the club, we know we have had a poor season, we’ve had to take the criticism. We’ve had to take that and we’ll learn. I’m not sat here saying everything is great but there is optimism about the future. It’s a poor season but not a poor football club and we’ve been in worse positions than this.”

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