THE PAIN of relegation is hard enough for any club to swallow – but a sense of injustice makes it even worse.
Not once, but twice, have Sheffield United looked back in anger when departing the Premier League.
Under Dave Bassett in 1994, the Blades suffered the agony of a final day defeat against Chelsea as rivals Everton scored a late winner past Wimbledon goalkeeper Hans Segers.
Thirteen years later, the ‘Carlos Tevez affair’ cast a dark shadow as the Blades again tumbled on the final day of the season, losing at home to Wigan Athletic when a draw would have guaranteed survival.
Bassett, widely regarded as the greatest manager in the United’s history, still shudders at the memories.
But he also insists that the Blades committed ‘footballing suicide’ by allowing Premier League status to slip from their grasp.
“Relegation at Chelsea was easily my most devastating day in football,” he said. “What happened that afternoon will always leave a bitter taste in my mouth.”
Wimbledon goalkeeper Segers, who failed to stop Graham Stuart’s late goal for Everton, was subsequently involved in a high-profile match-fixing trial with Bruce Grobbelaar and John Fashanu.
Although all three players were cleared by Winchester Crown Court, they were found guilty of breaching betting regulations by the Football Association.
When the Blades returned under Neil Warnock in 1997, the Premier League was an even tougher place to survive and they lasted just a solitary season.
Again, their demise was clouded in controversy with Argentinian striker Carlos Tevez shooting rivals West Ham United to safety despite his mid-season transfer breaching Premier League rules related to third party ownership.
The Hammers were fined £5.5m but, crucially, were not docked points which sparked a lengthy legal battle between the clubs and the Premier League.
In 2009, the Hammers finally agreed to make an out-of-court settlement to the Blades, estimated to be in the region of £20m.
Speaking to the Yorkshire Post at the time of the Tevez affair, Bassett made it abundantly clear that he was not totally sympathetic towards the Blades’ case.
“I don’t think clubs can say they have been ‘cheated’ if West Ham stay up,” he said. “There is nothing in the Premier League rule book which says that a club should be docked points for fielding an ineligible player. It is like demanding that a motorist be sent to jail for speeding instead of getting three points and a fine!
“United should not have been going into the final game of the season needing points to stay up,” he added. “They were 10 points clear (at one stage) and should have pushed on. But the management thought they were safe and I think they went into ‘cruise control’, thinking they had arrived! But it never works out that way.”
Now back in the third tier of English football, the Blades spent four seasons in the top flight under Bassett.
But when chairman Reg Brealey agreed to sell striker Brian Deane to Leeds United for £2.9m in the summer of 1993, it put the club in reverse gear.
Deane, who had carved his own unique place in Premier League history when scoring the competition’s first goal (against Manchester United on the opening day of the 1992-93 season), was also sold behind Bassett’s back.
“Instability in the boardroom was a major problem around that time,” said Bassett. “It is a real pity that (the current chairman) Kevin McCabe was not in charge back in those days!
“After three seasons in the top flight, I felt we were beginning to get a grip on what was required. Unfortunately, we shot ourselves in the foot by selling Brian. I was on holiday and I simply couldn’t believe it. When I got back, I told the chairman that it was a mistake that might result in relegation.
“The Brealey family was owed money, and I accept that they were entitled to it paying back, but I just wish they had consulted me more.
“We would have banked far more than £2.9m if we had stayed in the Premier League – and with his goals I dare say we would have secured survival before the final game against Chelsea. There were other players we could have sold to bring a million in. And if we had spent just one more season in the top flight, I am convinced the money would have come in to get us established.
“Selling Brian Deane was footballing suicide,” he concluded. “We drew 18 games in that final season but if we had still had Deano I know we would have turned some of those draws into victories.”
The Blades headed to Chelsea on May 7, 1994, knowing that a victory would secure their Premier League status regardless of other results.
Glyn Hodges scored to make it 2-1 on 60 minutes and the Blades looked firmly on course to stay up. Other results put five clubs beneath the Blades in the table at that stage – Southampton, Ipswich Town, Everton, Oldham Athletic, and Swindon Town.
There were just 14 minutes left to play when Mark Stein equalised for Chelsea.
Everton took a 3-2 lead against Wimbledon. Stein scored again in the final minute.
Agony for the Blades.
“Whatever I think about events elsewhere, we would have stayed up if we had not conceded that last-minute goal and Ipswich would have gone down instead,” reflects Bassett. “We had a wonderful opportunity to become established but it was ripped away from us.
“To be fair, we had been punching above our weight financially for a long time. We were miles behind clubs like Sheffield Wednesday in what we were able to pay for players and although I had been dubbed ‘Harry Houdini’ in some quarters, you can’t just keep pulling rabbits out of the hat forever.”
Now 67, Bassett briefly returned to Bramall Lane in 2011 as ‘consultant’ to manager Micky Adams but has spent the majority of the last four years out of the limelight. He has mixed emotions about the overall impact of the Premier League and feels spending is out of control.
“It’s amazing how much debt exists but I have no sympathy for clubs who get into trouble financially. The Premier League is awash with money but far too much has gone out of the game via agents.
“Players have too much power, there are too many managers being dictated to by interfering owners, and players don’t show managers enough respect.
“I also think there are far too many foreign players in our game now. We have a lot of sub-standard foreign players and that isn’t helping the development of the English game. We have plenty of English kids with just as much, if not more, talent who should be filling those shirts.
“It’s an unbelievable situation but there is no arguing that the Premier League is now the No 1 attraction in British sport.
“Who knows when Sheffield United will be back? I would like to see them there again but it’s not going to be easy,” he added. “Both Sheffield United and Wednesday are Premier League clubs in size but no-one has a divine right. Both have to look back at what they did in the past and say they got it wrong. The people running the two clubs made decisions that were ultimately unsuccessful.”