But a rollercoaster of a campaign, which saw them change manager and climb from 16th to fifth under Paul Heckingbottom’s stewardship, has given them something to build upon next term.
The Star’s James Shield looks back on the past 10 months, identifying when things went right, where they went wrong and what the future might look like.
Best Win: Hammering Fulham, who had already secured promotion and sewn up the title, on the final day of the regular season would be the obvious choice. And, make no mistake, Heckingbottom’s side were superb as they romped home 4-0. But, given that the race for the top-flight was still very much alive at the time, December’s 1-0 triumph over Marco Silva’s side at Craven Cottage was probably more impressive. Iliman Ndiaye scored a wonder goal early on and then United showed the other side to their character, keeping the most dangerous attack in the division at bay and achieving the impossible by restricting Aleksandar Mitrovic, who usually eats second tier defences for breakfast.
Worst Defeat: Derby County, just after Christmas, came close. United were everything they usually aren’t during an insipid display at Pride Park. But there were mitigating circumstances, given they’d probably forgotten what a football looked following a series of postponements caused by another wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Well, that’s what the opposition claimed anyway. But November’s 3-1 loss at Blackburn Rovers, towards the end of Slavisa Jokanovic’s reign, was even worse as, after taking the lead through Rhian Brewster, United were torn apart by the hosts’ power and pace.
Most Revealing Game: Given the bravery they displayed at the City Ground, it feels a little harsh criticising United right now. But football is a brutal business, and the fact they didn’t go up confirms Heckingbottom’s squad isn’t perfect. Perhaps their biggest fault last term is the fact they either blew very hot or very cold. And the very best can win when they produce lukewarm performances. It is a trick United must learn to perfect next term. April’s 3-1 win over QPR, when they were terrible before the break and terrific after it, was their season rolled into 90 minutes.
Biggest Disappointment: Perhaps this should be renamed the ‘Stating the bleedin obvious’ award. Because, quite clearly, it was the sight of United missing three spot-kicks and Forest only one during last week’s shoot-out at the City Ground. Missing-out on promotion. It doesn’t get more disappointing than that. But Lys Mousset’s failure to make the most of his final opportunity at Bramall Lane, after initially appearing to thrive under the Serb’s leadership, has also got to rank right up there.
Best Player: Wes Foderingham, recruited as a number two, proved himself to be an excellent number one following the departures of Aaron Ramsdale and then Robin Olsen. Ndiaye excelled and Sander Berge came good - consistently good that is - following a switch of position during the second half of the season. Billy Sharp did what Billy Sharp does. But the United’s finest player of the campaign was Morgan Gibbs-White. On loan from Wolves, it’s a crying shame he won’t be back.
Biggest Loss: If Sharp had been on the pitch at Forest, I’d have backed them to go through after turning around the tie. Leading 2-1 following the first leg and then stretching their lead through Brennan Johnson, Steve Cooper’s men were rocking following goals from Gibbs-White and John Fleck. But losing Jayden Bogle to injury proved a bigger loss than anyone imagined at the time, given the wing-back’s attacking qualities.
Finest Goal: Ndiaye’s strike in west London, already referenced above, would usually be the clear winner in this category. When the youngster picked up the ball, ran half the length of the pitch and then threaded it past Marek Rodak, you knew it would take something special to beat it. George Baldock produced exactly that, with a spectacular scissor kick against Swansea City in February. Even better, it came following a superb 10 pass move.
Funniest Quote: Jokanovic had a good sense of humour, despite his Balkans hardman image. Towards the end of last year, when there was a fuel shortage at the pumps, one reporter from a national television company asked him if he was concerned about United’s ability to actually travel to games. “This is no problem,” Jokanovic replied, a wry grin creeping across his face. “This is my life and, when I was growing up (during the war), the last place you wanted to be stood was on a petrol forecourt.”
Frustrating Things: Giving their rivals a month long headstart by failing to make serious inroads in the transfer market until the end of August - and probably stymying Jokanovic from the outset - refereeing decisions at AFC Bournemouth and Blackpool, plus United’s decision to streamline in January despite a debilitating number of injuries are all rank highly. But not as high as the sight of Mousset, who should be the first name on the team sheet, wasting his talent before being loaned out and then released. A crying shame.
Breakthrough Star: Ndiaye. Quite what the 22-year-old was doing in non-league football before joining United is anyone’s guess. Yes, he’s still raw. Thanks to his journey through the game, Ndiaye is effectively learning on the job. But he can score goals, create goals and befuddle opponents. Oh, and the lad also plays with a smile on his face. Rhian Brewster deserves an honourable mention after ending his goal drought and showing great potential before injury struck. Both youngsters will be big players next term.