Former Sheffield United and Leeds United midfielder Michael Tonge fires warning to Blades players after Premier League relegation
Former Sheffield United favourite Michael Tonge has urged the current team to avoid repeating the mistakes made last time the club was relegated.
The Blades academy graduate played more than 280 games in red and white between 2001 and 2008 and was part of the team relegated from the top flight on goal difference in the 2006-07 season after helping them to promotion.
Tonge, now retired, stuck around the following year back in the Championship when United eventually finished ninth under Kevin Blackwell after a poor start to the season, which cost Neil Warnock’s replacement, Bryan Robson, his job.
“It was a massive disappointment that we went down, the 38-year-old told The Star,” I didn’t really realise it at the time. Neil leaving was a massive blow to a lot of players. The manager changes and nobody knows where they stand.
“It took a lot of lads who played that year a long time to recover from relegation. I don’t think anybody recovered for quite a while – me included – and they needed to. We were all thinking we shouldn’t be here.
"That’s what the Sheffield United lads need to avoid.”
Tonge admitted the first half of the 2007-08 season was among the most difficult periods of his 17-year career, which included more than 500 professional appearances.
He said: "When Kevin Blackwell came in we really had a good second half of the season, we performed how we were expected to do in the first half.
"I did feel sorry for Bryan Robson. We tried to do it a different way and Kevin came back and it went back to how it was and worked again.”
A good start next season is “massive” for Sheffield United, Tonge added.
"If they have a poor start, they could find it difficult,” he said, “you end up trying to play catch up, then the fans are disgruntled, then it becomes a really difficult atmosphere to play in.
"The fans expect you to go straight back up because they have had a taste for it. It’s just not that easy.”
Keeping hold of players will also be crucial, in the view of the former England youth international, who left the Blades to sign for Stoke City following their promotion to the Premier League.
"If you see the teams that go straight back up, 80 per cent of their teams just stay the same,” Tonge said. “I think a lot of the Sheffield United players will still be there, one or two might leave.
"The most difficult thing about getting relegated is that the team gets split up. You get players who move and people who come in, then people who are still there but think they should be moving.
"Sometimes the energy in the camp is a little bit ruffled. If you get in a situation where everyone’s not pulling in the same direction, you are in trouble.”
Sheffield United’s chief executive Stephen Bettis insisted there will be no “fire sale” of the club’s players this summer and admitted starting the new season well is “so important.”
Bettis also indicated two-time Championship promotion-winner Jokanovic will stick with the club’s current style of football, something Tonge, who is now a coach at Huddersfield Town’s academy, was not so sure on.
"I would be surprised if the manager sticks with the 3-5-2,” he said. “It ended up being very rigid. They were struggling but they didn’t have the players to change it.
"If you are going to change it, you have got to change it from the first day of pre-season.
“If I was the manager in that situation, you have to go in, quickly work out who are the strong characters, who are the leaders in the dressing room, then get them on side and singing from the same hymn sheet.”
Last season teenagers Antwoine Hackford, Iliman Ndiaye, Daniel Jebbison and Femi Seriki all made their first-team debuts, with three more youngsters - Andre Brooks, Jordan Amissah and Oliver Arblaster – all agreeing long-term deals at Bramall Lane along with forward Jebbison and wing-back Seriki.
Tonge came through the youth academy at Sheffield United alongside Phil Jagielka and Nick Montgomery, and all three established themselves as first-team regulars at Bramall Lane.
“Next season the manager will probably be trying to use them,” he said.
“The fans like to see it as well.”
Jokanovic previously handed first-team debuts at Fulham to Harvey Elliott and Ryan Sessegnon aged just 15 and 16 respectively.
Tonge, who retired in 2019, vividly remembers the moment Neil Warnock told him he would be the next player from the club’s successful academy to play for the senior team.
At the time he was still living in ‘digs’ – a terraced house on Alderson Place with four other young players. Another five team mates lived next door. It was, he admitted, “carnage”.
"I remember this house phone, which was bizarre really, I was just passing it when it rung and I picked it up and it was the manager.
"He just said you are playing on Saturday. It was really mad. It was early in the week, like a Tuesday.”
Along with Jagielka and Montgomery, Tonge did not look back after his debut - and remembers his time at Bramall Lane fondly.
"As younger lads – and for the boys at the minute who are trying to get through – it’s good if there’s a few of you because you end up pushing each other along,” he said.
"When I look back it was quite strange that me, Phil and Nick all came through, but we all played in the same position.
“I loved it, it was probably the best footballing period of my career.
"I have no regrets. I just wish we could have stayed up, I really do feel if we would have we would have stayed up for a few years.”