How Sheffield United is finally living up to its history

In a weekend that saw Liverpool further cement their grip on the title — if that is still physiologically possible — it was the boot of a Sheffield United player that arguably had the biggest impact on the make-up of the English Premier League. John Fleck’s hard, late half-volley served both to deny Arsenal’s latest effort to get on to their feet and ensured his own club remain firmly in position to butt heads with their rivals for European spots — almost all of which dropped points.

That the Blades can legitimately consider sides such as Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur as part of those group of rivals at this point in the season is testament to their impressive trajectory, one that began in League One three years ago. Yet, as out of place their standing among the 21st-century elite may appear, in the context of football’s history as a global sport, the team, and its city, couldn’t be a better fit.

Sheffield, archaeologists will determine 3 000 years from now, has a strong claim to be being the cradle of football. In addition to being home to the oldest team in the world, Sheffield FC, it was there that the Sheffield Rules were drawn up in 1858. This document was the precursor to what would be adopted by the Football Association years later and contained such revolutionary inventions as the corner kick and free kick. 

The town was a centre of British industrialisation in the 19th century, and workers found a vital avenue of escapism in the rise of football, particularly in cricket’s winter off-season. It’s a working class legacy that is to this day ingrained in the identity of the city’s sides. The “Blades” nickname, for instance, is rooted in the large cutlery industry that ran out of its many factories. Rivals Sheffield Wednesday, meanwhile, began as The Wednesday — the only day of the week the tradesmen who formed the club had off.

Yet despite its rich footballing pedigree and mass blue-collar support, neither club has been able to savour sustained success over the past 100-odd years. A handful of honours here and there, up and down through the leagues: on paper there is nothing that suggests either club is special. 

The Premier League era has been a particularly sore point. Since falling out in the early 1990s, long and drawn-out efforts to get back in have been largely fruitless. Before last year, Sheffield United managed it only once, in 2005 and, as a reward, became victims of the Carlos Tevez saga and perhaps the most infamous relegation of the competition’s history. If you haven’t heard of it, suffice to say it’s one of those sagas you just couldn’t make up. 

West Ham United were adjudged to have signed both Tevez and Argentinian compatriot Javier Mascherano illegally, yet were given clearance to field both players in the final games of the season. On the last day, Tevez would score the winner against Manchester United, securing safety for the Hammers and dooming the Blades. Sheffield would be awarded compensation from a tribunal and would later sue the Premier League but their fate remained sealed.

No one would forget the injustice and few people would deny that resentment has lingered ever since. Not until two weeks ago did a modicum of revenge arrive at Bramall Lane, when Fleck acted as provider and slid the ball to Oli McBurnie to secure the win over West Ham. At the time, the three points took them back to the dizzying height of fifth on the table. Again, an unthinkable position for a fanbase well-acquainted with disappointment.

Just what a good job manager Chris Wilder has done in four years is difficult to put into words. Having joined the team in League One, he has weaved a shoe-string budget into two promotions and now a legitimate European push. A former Sheffield United player himself, his no-frills, direct attitude has endeared him to both his players and supporters. Wilder remains committed to the club and revels in its success: there are countless tales of him wandering around the city with a beer in his hand as his side conducted an almost week-long piss-up to celebrate promotion.

Even more impressive is that Wilder has gone about his business quietly while an ownership battle has raged behind him. In September, Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad finally won a long-standing court battle to seize full control of the Blades and give them a semblance of direction in the boardroom. 

The prince — who also recently invited controversy when he seemed to court investment from the Bin Laden family — is about as far as you can get from the historical Sheffield ethos. Still, having fought bitterly, it appears he’s given the club his full commitment and is willing to pump more money into it. It all points to an exciting new era for United: one that is more becoming of their history.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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