James Shield's Sheffield United Column: Can prioritising the FA Cup save The Blades' Premier League season?
Eight years ago, Emerson Boyce led his Wigan Athletic team mates up the stairs leading to Wembley Stadium’s royal box and, following a brief conversation with members of the presentation party, raised the FA Cup aloft.
Three days later, the winning side’s skipper was coming to terms with relegation after a defeat by Arsenal sent them down. That result, rather than their dramatic win over Manchester City, set the tone for what was to come.
After trying and failing to regain their top-flight status, Athletic now find themselves languishing in League One. However, that slide through the divisions can be attributed to the chaos in their boardroom.
Playing Championship football shouldn’t threaten a club’s existence. But reckless owners and ridiculous decision making off the pitch can.
Barring a dramatic change in fortune, Sheffield United will almost certainly be back in the second tier next season only three after gaining promotion. They reached the halfway stage of the campaign at the bottom of the table and 11 points from safety after losing to Tottenham Hotspur last weekend.
With matches against Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea on the horizon, Chris Wilder’s side could soon find themselves in the position of being required to claw back an average of one per game in order to stand a chance of survival. And the odds on that happening, given they have won only twice since September, are painfully slim.
“We’re not giving up, we’ve got to keep on going and that’s exactly what these lads will do,” Wilder insisted after the meeting with Spurs, in an effort to lift spirits behind the scenes.
“There’s so much I admire about them, even though we’re clearly going through a difficult period. And one of them is their attitude and desire to keep on going right until the end, no matter what.”
Yet, with Plymouth Argyle set to arrive in South Yorkshire tomorrow evening ahead of Saturday’s fourth round tie at Bramall Lane, Wilder and his players still have an opportunity to ensure what has so far been a thoroughly forgettable campaign ends on a high note.
The manager won’t admit it but, with the winners set to face either Millwall or Bristol City in the next phase of the competition, a route towards the later stages has suddenly opened up for United. Particularly with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men being paired with Liverpool and Arsenal and Chelsea also potentially facing tricky fixtures.
If, and it remains a might big ‘if’, United overcome Argyle and then make it all the way to the final, some folk will still argue the campaign has been a failure unless survival is also achieved.
But that says more about how money has been allowed to corrupt the spirit of a game where finishing 17th is viewed as a bigger triumph than delivering silverware. It isn’t. But don’t tell those who only measure success in pounds, shillings and pence rather than trophies.
Even if United manage to perform a miracle and stay up, they will still face a series of difficult challenges. Barring a major change in their financial status, they are likely to face another battle to avoid the drop next term and also the one after that.
As Sam Allardyce once told Neil Warnock, Wilder’s predecessor at the helm, it takes around half a decade of PL solidarity payments for a team without a major benefactor to be able to compete financially with those established at the highest level. And that was in an era before billionaire owners became the norm.
Once the novelty of rubbing shoulders with the biggest names in the country wears off, the difficulty then is maintaining enthusiasm levels among fans who know that existing is the sum total of their club’s ambitions.
One only has to view what is going on at Newcastle to see how this erodes passion and zeal. Or look at how some stadia before lockdown were rarely filled to capacity. Mediocrity, at whatever level, is rarely appealing if you are being asked to pay top dollar to watch.
Realistically, United are probably not going to claw themselves out of the bottom three. But they still have much to play for; even if it is only avoiding the tag of becoming ‘The Worst Team’ in the division’s history by surpassing the 11 point mark set by Derby County in 2008.
If that does pass to United then, make no mistake, it will cast a shadow over the 2021/22 campaign and make it even more difficult to bounce back immediately.
“We care about what happens to the club, we’ve all bought into it and that’s not always the case wherever you go,” defender Chris Basham admitted recently.
“We want to do it for ourselves, yes, but also for the club and the supporters. Because they deserve to see us leaving everything out there.”
Either way, bringing a trophy to Bramall Lane would see a group of players who have brought so much pleasure to the club go down in history for all the right reasons.
It would be a fitting epitaph too, with major changes almost certainly on the way over the summer regardless of whether they survive or not.
For that reason alone, United could be forgiven for prioritising the FA Cup over the PL.
After witnessing how beating Bristol Rovers in the previous round raised spirits ahead of last week’s victory over Newcastle, it actually might not be as daft an idea as it sounds.