Covid-19 disproportionately affects the elderly. Many younger sufferers appear to shrug it off quite quickly, only for some to endure longer-lasting effects.
Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday are two very elderly football clubs but their longevity means relegation will not be the death of them. It very rarely affects football clubs that badly. The long-term symptoms, particularly of Premier League relegation, though, can be very debilitating.
Common symptoms of long Covid can include lethargy and “brain fog”. Long relegation can result in apathy and lasting economic harm.
Wednesday, arguably still to properly shake off relegation from the Premier League 21 years ago, are in serious danger of dropping out of the Championship. United’s Premier League demotion is pretty much guaranteed. What happens next is not.
In my previous job, covering north-east sport, I saw a number of Premier League relegations. Newcastle United, darlings of the late 1990s and preparing for a Uefa Cup last-32 tie (which they won) when I joined in 2005, were relegated in 2009 and 2016. Sunderland, halfway to Championship promotion, were relegated in 2006 and 2017.
Most of those relegations were not exactly a giggle, but hardly a disaster. Sunderland’s 2005 title win ended just two seasons outside the elite, and their next relegation, like Newcastle’s two, was a one-season affair. They were quite refreshing, a chance to clear deadwood, for fans to visit new grounds with bigger away allocations and watch their team win. I remember waiting an eternity to cross to where Newcastle’s team bus was parked around the back of Oakwell whilst an armada of coaches and mini-buses headed for the exit and Tyneside.
But the Black Cats’ 2017 relegation was different. They are still trying to recover, scrabbling around the League One play-off places after a second relegation the following year.
The Blades endured six third-tier seasons before Chris Wilder led them out in 2016. Wednesday have dipped in twice since last playing top-flight football, and on both occasions needed two seasons to escape.
Huddersfield Town are currently feeling the effects of long relegation. Dropping out of the Premier League in 2019 has been followed by consecutive relegation battles. Some of the loot was wisely reinvested in the training ground but bad top-flight recruitment saddled them with wages they could ill-afford, trapping them between the rock of overpaid players they could not sell lacking Championship hunger and/or ability, and the hard place of paying them to go. Last year’s brutal mid-season cutting of the parachute in light of the pandemic hardly helped.
Leeds United had three League One seasons in the mid-noughties and Bradford City are now in League Two, where last week they played former Uefa Cup qualifiers Bolton Wanderers.
If Wednesday drop again, their stature will not guarantee instant bounceback as they will not be the only tall poppies in that field.
The battle Wilder is fighting behind the scenes at Bramall Lane is an attempt to follow the lead of Norwich City, Watford and Bournemouth, all of whom are Championship promotion contenders this season, rather than the path of Sunderland or the malaise across the city.
Manager Darren Moore’s appointment at Hillsborough is an attempt to bring about the culture shift needed there. Too late to ward off much of the apathy, his job is to bring supporters back when the turnstiles reopen.
“It’s a wonderful club that has probably just lost its way a little bit,” he said after his first away game hammered home the point.
Garry Monk’s comments this time last year about a deep-rooted culture that will never be successful chimed with my Sunderland experiences.
Unless the stench can be lifted, the return of fans could be as much of a hindrance as a help. Apart from a brief behind-closed-doors interlude under caretaker-manager Neil Thompson, the Owls have struggled to win at home in recent years, and the nervousness, unhappiness or air of resignation of a crowd used to better can have a decaying effect.
The shift most fans want is for Dejphon Chansiri to sell the club but even that is difficult when its value is plummeting with its league position.
Often in early 2017 I would hear relegation could be a good thing for Sunderland, a chance to reset, open some windows and let in fresh air. It was not.
It can be for the Blades and the Owls if they go about it the right way, re-engaging fans and playing energising football.
In the case of United, keeping those still-hungry players and the ravenous manager responsible for some of the headiness of the previous four seasons and enhancing it with fresh faces will be important, as will showing the stale “couple who need to go” – as Wilder put it at the weekend – the door.
For Wednesday, the balance will be more towards the exit with out-of-contract players in double figures, whilst retaining the like of captain Barry Bannan, who gets the club, recently signed up for next season.
Instant recovery from relegation is not a given, and both clubs need careful nursing back to health.
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