Danny Hall Column: Why relegation doesn't have to be such a bad thing for Sheffield United

After almost five seasons of constant improvement and remarkable progression, Sheffield United's journey under Chris Wilder has only this season hit its first speedbump.

Tuesday, 23rd February 2021, 7:00 pm
United will hope to get fans back into Bramall Lane by the time the new season kicks off: Darren Staples/Sportimage

Bottom of the Premier League and 14 points from safety with 13 games remaining, even the manager himself admits they have a lot to do if they are to survive this season.

The second tier beckons for the Blades, and reaction to that amongst the United fanbase varies from one extreme - "I prefer the Championship anyway" - to the other ("It's the death of the club as we know it").

It goes without saying that United are better off in the Premier League than out of it. Not just in terms of being one of the top 20 teams in the country, but in terms of the worldwide exposure, attention and, let's face it, cash that comes with it.

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As annoying as it can be, especially to the poor soul that runs one of Sheffield FC's Twitter accounts who spends hours correcting them, there is a reason that many folk in football call United 'Sheffield'.

The Blades are the only city team to have graced the Premier League in the last 20 seasons, and so a lot of fans around the world will know only of those in red and white.

That is the level of exposure that Premier League football brings, not to mention the hundreds of millions of pounds that follow. United's coffers were swelled to the tune of around £130m last season from broadcasting payments alone, without taking into account increased sponsorship and commercial deals. And unless a miracle happens, that is what United are set to miss out on for at least another season.

Oli McBurnie and Rhian Brewster both have a good goalscoring record in the Championship: Andrew Yates/Sportimage

But is relegation the disaster that many predict? It doesn't have to be. Burnley bounced back at the first attempt after being relegated in 2014/15, and have now spent four successive years at this level - which, for context, is more than United have managed in total since the mid-1990s.

Norwich, top of the Championship after going down last season, seem to have built a business model out of relegation and promotion. But bouncing back is far from a certainty, as the clutter of once-proud clubs now struggling at the wrong end of the Championship will say.

Get it wrong - and, in United's case, I'd suggest that means parting company with Chris Wilder, either by sacking him or allowing him to walk away - and relegation could set United back for years. Love him or hate him, the decision to let Neil Warnock leave proved that the last time United went down from the top flight. It took 12 years for Wilder to drag them back up, and six of those were spent in the abyss of League One.

Jayden Bogle is an exciting player for the future: Getty

This is where - again, purely for my money - Wilder has been smart and savvy in his recruitment. There will inevitably be departures if and when United are condemned to relegation - it's just a hunch, but I can't see Sander Berge lining up in the Championship next season, while the likes of John Egan and George Baldock will also no doubt attract interest - but there is a core of players that will remain at Bramall Lane and should thrive in the second tier.

Think Oli McBurnie, who earned a big move to Bramall Lane on the back of 24 goals in a season for Swansea. Rhian Brewster's 11 in half a season almost fired the Swans into the play-offs after lockdown and although neither have really set the Premier League alight, they should form a formidable partnership in the league below.

Aaron Ramsdale will probably be glad of a bit of a breather from being peppered for two consecutive seasons of fighting relegation. The likes of Jayden Bogle and Rhys Norrington-Davies could be blooded, along with a host of impressive youngsters that are being protected from the potentially damaging effects of a Premier League scrap.

Chris Wilder admits United have it all to do to keep their place in the Premier League from now on: David Klein/Sportimage

Instead, the target for the last 13 games of this Premier League adventure should be to protect enough pride and respectability and ensure that the hangover of this season doesn't last into next.

Will a widely-expected return to the Championship see Wilder and Co. revert to their previously-used shape of a No.10 behind two strikers? The shackles may come off a little, in which case Blades fans may hope that Nottingham Forest don't take up the option to sign Luke Freeman on a permanent basis.

It will certainly result in better kick-off times - say goodbye to Sunday evenings at 7.15pm, fingers crossed - and also the prospect of 46 games without VAR, which will no doubt please the majority of Blades fans (at least until the first decision goes against United that would have gone the other way in the Premier League).

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a column welcoming relegation to the Championship, and the optimism does rely on a lot of things going in United’s favour.

In an ideal world, Wilder is allowed to keep hold of his star men and go again next season. He certainly wants that, as he told the media recently, but the choice is ultimately Prince Abdullah's - the man who writes the cheques when the Premier League gravy train pulls away from Sheffield station.

In an ideal world, fans will be allowed back into Bramall Lane next season - a prospect tantalisingly teased by the government's plan to allow some supporters - albeit at restricted capacity - to watch the final game of this campaign from the stands of their club.

And, in an ideal world, the Blades will have a damn good go at getting back up, being stronger all round for the highs and lows that their two seasons in the Premier League this time around provided.

Relegation may, in a way, be the end of an era. But it doesn't have to define it.