SHEFFIELD UNITED’S return to the Premier League represents a cathartic moment for many – not least for a group of former players whose wounds have festered for over a decade.
Michael Tonge counts himself firmly among that number, with the revered ex-Blades midfielder part of Neil Warnock’s line-up who were cruelly relegated from the top flight on goal difference after a 2-1 home defeat to Wigan Athletic at a rain-sodden and tear-laden Bramall Lane on May 13, 2007.
On the same day, of course, relegation rivals West Ham triumphed at Manchester United to save their own skins thanks to a goal from Carlos Tevez and then the recriminations truly began.
The Blades were justifiably furious that the Argentine, who played a huge role in the Hammers’ safety, was eligible to play at the end of 2006-07 – but an independent Premier League commission imposed a record £5.5m fine on the London club rather than a points deduction.
The Yorkshire club lost an initial appeal against their relegation, but a year later an independent FA tribunal found in their favour.
Almost £20m in compensation arrived, but money ultimately cannot buy you love – or a return to the big time.
Instead the Blades inexorably went the other way and found themselves mired in League One for more seasons than they care to mention. For those with long memories and players such as Tonge who lined up against Wigan on that fateful day, last weekend’s events possessed an unmistakable element of righteousness – even if the sense of injustice at the events of 12 years ago will not totally go away.
Tonge told The Yorkshire Post: “It is a great club and I have a big pull towards it. From a personal point of view I am so pleased because of how we went down last time.
“It still leaves a bit of a bitter taste with the whole West Ham saga for me and it was not right.
“But it is right that the club are back up and I am dead pleased for everyone. We were gutted about what happened (in 2007).
“It took a while to recover as the problem when you come down is that you have a mix of players. Some will have done well at that (top) level and possibly some other teams will come for them.
“Then you have some older lads whose contracts are running out and people who have not been playing and people who you have brought in who might think, ‘Well, actually I am too good for the Championship’. It is hard to get that balance right.”
The sight of a Blades squad watching each other’s backs and displaying the club’s core values of endeavour, togetherness, passion and soul in their return to the big time has been duly noted by Tonge and many other former players – with the similarities with vintage Blades sides of old being unmistakable. It has added an element of poignancy to the Blades’ latest top-flight promotion story, cut from the same cloth as the events of 2005-06 and 1989-90.
Now 36 and winding down his career, Tonge observed: “They have done really well. They have been really solid and played some good stuff and I just think that the formation that they play works with the players that they have got for it.
“I think Chris (Wilder) has done really well and they have put together a good squad of players. You can tell that they have got a good togetherness. There is not one lad who is earning miles more than another and everyone seems like they are all in it together and it definitely bodes well. Chris has done fantastically well.
“With anything you need good characters, personalities and players. Sometimes I would sacrifice a better player for the right personality as it only needs one or two to start rocking the boat and people start thinking, ‘he is not pulling his weight or not bothered’. But you can tell that everyone is bothered.”
Just like with their promotion in 2005-06 under Neil Warnock, another heart-on-sleeve Sheffielder and boyhood Unitedite has presided over the Blades’ tub-thumping renaissance in manager Wilder, whose stock is sky-high among Blades supporters following the club’s rise.
Tonge is thankful that Wilder remains at the Blades’ helm, while being the first to admit that he is somewhat perplexed that the 51-year-old has not been previously targeted by top-flight clubs for his magnificent restoration work at S2.
Tonge said: “He has probably been under-rated as a manager.
“I do not want him to leave or anything, but I do not know how he does not get linked with other jobs in the Premier League.
“(Premier League) owners, for some reason, will go for a foreign guy rather than someone who is doing really well. Why they do not look into the Championship I will never know. I have seen people who have been sacked and I am thinking, ‘How is he (Wilder) not getting pulled in for this job given the way Sheffield United have been playing?’. But I do not think he would leave Shefield United, to be honest.”