With Sheffield United playing at Southampton, it could have been a day of real celebration for the Blades. When coronavirus struck, Chris Wilder’s side were on course to qualify for Europe for the first time. Reaching the Champions League was a genuine prospect, and still could be if the Premier League succeeds in getting 2019-20 up and running.
The Blades are owed a good send-off to a Premier League season, having twice been on the wrong end of excruciating finishes. Sometimes the final day can be a bit of a damp squib but in others, 10 months of football tees up a decisive final 90 minutes. Between them, Yorkshire’s clubs have seen the highs and lows.
Few final-day relegation battles have been as dramatic as 1993-94’s, and Sheffield United were on the wrong end of it.
“Football has kicked me in the cobblers today,” reflected manager Dave Bassett.
Despite a dreadful start to the season, the Blades were a point outside the relegation zone with a game left, but so were Tottenham Hotspur, Southampton and Ipswich Town. By 3.30pm they were 16th, Jostein Flo giving them the lead at Chelsea. By 4pm, Everton, who started in the bottom three, were 2-0 down to Wimbledon.
With half-an-hour to go at Stamford Bridge, Glyn Hodges had restored the lead Jakob Kjeldberg briefly took away and Southampton were the only relegation candidates winning.
By the 90th minute, the margins were finer, Mark Stein having equalised for Chelsea, and Everton having gone 3-2 up at Goodison Park. When Stein volleyed in at a corner 30 seconds into stoppage time the Blades were relegated on goal difference.
There was more to the story of their 2007 relegation than what happened on the final day – much more – but that was a melodrama in itself.
West Ham United and Sheffield United’s momentum were going in opposite directions. With nine games to go, the Hammers had been bottom, the Blades were 16th, 11 points ahead, but once top-scorer Rob Hulse broke his leg at Chelsea, they got sucked in. Carlos Tevez had just scored his first goal of the season, and would end it with seven.
The Blades went into the final day knowing a draw would keep them up, but for visitors Wigan Athletic it was win or bust, and in Paul Jewell they had a manager who had escaped with Bradford City seven years earlier.
Paul Scharner put the Latics in front but Jon Stead’s bravery saw him head home a cross in the collision which saw him and Mike Pollitt receive treatment, and Ryan Taylor followed captain Arjan de Zeeuw in going off injured.
Three minutes after replacing Taylor and four months after leaving Bramall Lane, David Unsworth’s penalty proved decisive despite Danny Webber hitting a post and Lee McCulloch’s red card leaving only 10 men for the Blades to throw the kitchen sink at.
Unsworth’s would not have been a killer blow had Tevez not landed one, too. He scored the only goal as West Ham beat champions Manchester United despite his third-party signing being ruled illegal in April.
Only last summer did the Blades return to the top-flight.
There was controversy, too, about Middlesbrough’s 1996-97 relegation.
Having finished 12th the previous season, Bryan Robson added Emerson and Fabrizio Ravanelli to his squad at great expense, and the result was 111 league goals. The problem was, 60 were in Boro’s net.
A three-point deduction for withdrawing from December’s game at Blackburn Rovers, claiming 23 players were sick, injured or suspended ensured that by failing to beat Leeds United, the FA Cup and League Cup finalists also failed to beat the drop.
The 1-1 draw Boro ended 2004-05 with could scarcely have been more different, Mark Schwarzer’s last-minute penalty save denying Manchester City victory in what amounted to a UEFA Cup play-off.
West Yorkshire rivals were celebrating European qualifications when David Wetherall’s header kept Bradford in the Premier League in 2000. Just avoiding relegation was enough to put the Bantams into the Intertoto Cup, the highest-ranked club willing to entertain the unloved summer competition. With Leeds held to a goalless draw by West Ham, victory over Bradford would have put Liverpool into the Champions League on goal difference. Instead, the Whites started on the road to the semi-finals.
The tables were turned 12 months later, Leeds’s 3-1 win over Leicester City rendered irrelevant by the Reds’ 4-0 win at Charlton Athletic.
How the Blades would love to have been in a battle like that this weekend.