Blades battling to join exclusive Premier League great escape artists
Recent seasons have given a bit more hope for those bottom of the pile when the presents are opened, but still the task facing Sheffield United is a monumental one.
First-hand experience, though, has taught manager Chris Wilder never to give up.
The biggest factor in his club’s favour is there is no precedent for this season. From the late start to behind-closed-doors matches, this has been a campaign like no other. Normally by this stage, teams would have played 17 or 18 games, in some cases 19. The Blades are only 14 in. Already though, the gap they have to bridge is daunting.
Their two points is the lowest a Premier League team has ever had at Christmas. Sheffield Wednesday previously held that dubious distinction with six in 1999, all earned inside the first 14 games.
Only Manchester United’s 1930-31 team can match Sheffield United’s two points from the first 14 matches of a top-flight season, and they would have had another under three points for a win. They had six by Christmas, and 22 by the end of the season when they were relegated, along with Leeds United.
Burnley’s win over Wolverhampton Wanderers on Monday stretched the gap to safety into double figures, something only Aston Villa, Sunderland and Wednesday have faced as Premier League clubs on Christmas Day. All were relegated, and all but the Owls in last place.
But it was in 2003-04 that the old adage of being bottom at Christmas guaranteeing relegation was consigned to the dustbin, and in the last decade Sunderland and Leicester City proved it was no fluke, both finishing 14th. The Foxes, famously, won the title the following season.
In between managing Middlesbrough, Bradford City and Sheffield United, Bryan Robson broke the glass ceiling. When West Bromwich Albion sacked former Owls midfielder Gary Megson in October 2004, they turned to their former midfielder.
Robson actually started poorly. The Baggies had been outside of the relegation zone when Megson was dismissed after rejecting a new contract but by Christmas they were four points adrift of safety.
Boxing Day brought a 5-0 defeat to Liverpool.
Even on the final morning of the season West Brom were still propping up the rest, but by full time they had scrambled to 34 points, one more than Crystal Palace and Norwich City. Safety was secured with a 2-0 win over Portsmouth started by Geoff Horsfield’s superb volley shortly after coming off the bench. His backheel sent Kieran Richardson through for a second and with Palace throwing away a lead and Norwich and Southampton losing, history was made.
Sunderland and Leicester left it late too, only really kicking into gear in April.
Reaching the 2014 League Cup final built up hopes at the Stadium of Light, where Gustavo Poyet had replaced Paolo Di Canio as manager after one point from the opening five matches. When his side lost 5-1 at Tottenham Hotspur, however, the Uruguayan looked a beaten man.
The gap to safety was seven points with two games in hand – hardly disastrous, but time was rapidly running out. The Black Cats had only seven matches left and games in hand do not count for much when the only time you have avoided defeat in eight matches was a 0-0 draw at home to Crystal Palace.
“We need a miracle,” said a crestfallen Poyet. Five days later they lost again, to Everton.
Then it happened. Future Owls striker Connor Wickham scored twice in a 2-2 draw with Manchester City, followed by consecutive wins over Chelsea (Wickham scored again), Cardiff City (two in this one), Manchester United and West Bromwich Albion. When they lost at home to Swansea City on the final day it did not matter – they were already safe.
Leicester showed it could be done without changing manager although that was a close-run thing. After Nigel Pearson grabbed opponent James McArthur by the throat in February, rumours he had been sacked reached a crescendo before the club finally knocked them down.
Even on April Fools Day 2015 you would have thought predictions of the newly-promoted Foxes staying up were a wind up, with seven points to make up but they won seven of their last nine games. Pearson’s sacking came at the end of the season and the rest is history.
Swansea City can feel hard done-by not to be included amongst the great escape artists. In 2006 they were three points from safety on Christmas Day but it was Hull City bottom on goal difference. The Tigers were relegated in 18th, but Swansea stayed up in 15th.
The inspiration the Blades must take is from a campaign Wilder was part of.
Sheffield United went into the final weekend before Christmas Day 1990 – match 18 – without a top-flight win but with Wilder in the XI, they beat a star-studded Nottingham Forest side 3-2 to kick-start their season. Between January and March they won seven matches on the trot, and from bottom at Christmas with just seven points, seven from safety, they finished 13th.
It was yet another reminder not to give up. The situation looks bleak and it may well be beyond a limited squad but a surrender of a season will be hard to snap out of in 2020-21.
The Blades have no choice but to stand and fight, and the last two performances, against Manchester United and Brighton and Hove Albion, suggest they will.
History tells us it is unlikely to be enough, but that miracles can happen, and this team cornered the market in upsetting the odds last season.
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