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The dark days are over: How Chris Wilder has led Sheffield United back to the Premier League

5:00 PM MYT 04/05/2019
Chris Wilder Sheffield United 2018-19
After a 12-year absence from the top flight, the Blades will be back in the big time next season after a stunning renaissance under a lifelong fan

May 13, 2007, an infamous day in Sheffield United’s history. The South Yorkshire club stepped onto the pitch for their final home game of the season, three points clear of their opponents and Premier League relegation rivals Wigan Athletic. A loss for Neil Warnock’s men would see them relegated back down to the Championship, if West Ham also beat Manchester United

Wigan defeated the Blades 2-1, while West Ham beat the Red Devils 1-0 thanks to a goal from Carlos Tevez, whose controversial signing eventually provided the Blades with more than £18 million in compensation, but no place in the Premier League.

The Shoreham Boys were silenced, the Greasy Chip Butty song was replaced by sobs, and dark clouds loomed over the club.

The Blades missed out on being promoted back to the top tier in 2007-08, finishing ninth in the table, before falling just short in 2008-09, losing the play-off final to Burnley, and then missing out on the play-offs completely the next season.

The darkest times were yet to come, though, with the club being relegated again in 2011 before lingering in League One for six seasons.

A revolving door of managers and a drop in home attendances followed, but times have changed for the better in recent years.

Chris Wilder, a life-long Blades supporter who was appointed manager in 2016, has taken the club from League One back to the top flight in just three seasons, Billy Sharp, who is in his third spell with the club, is scoring for fun, and Oliver Norwood has secured promotion for the third year in a row after helping Brighton and Fulham reach the Premier League in the two previous seasons.

“It's unbelievable,” former Blades forward Jan Aage Fjortoft told Goal. “I think the manager there has done fantastic work. If you just look at his stats and what he's achieved with this team. There are many great clubs with great traditions in England but I think, sometimes, Sheffield United has been underestimated.

"It's a great football city. They have one of the best histories and traditions in the world. I didn't stay at Bramall Lane for that long, but I love Bramall Lane. It's a fantastic stadium and I think they belong in the Premier League and will make the city of Sheffield proud by coming back. It's a great story that they are back in the Premier League.”

Fjortoft’s comments about Sheffield United being underestimated ring true. Founded in 1889, the club won the old Division One title within their first decade and have also won the FA Cup four times, yet their triumphs are seldom mentioned.

This season’s achievements can be added to the club’s roll-call of honour, and they could still go up to the Premier League as Championship winners if they beat Stoke in their final game of the campaign on Sunday and Norwich lose to Aston Villa.

Compare this to the position the club were in before Wilder was appointed, when they had finished the season 11th in League One, 21 points behind champions Wigan.

So how has the turnaround happened?

Player recruitment and integration have definitely been key to this season’s success, with Dean Henderson becoming the new favourite “Hendo” in the red half of the city, pushing the famous relish into second, while Norwood’s promotion-winning experience has been invaluable.

Former Sheffield United academy graduate and Ireland Under-21 international Connor Dimaio told Goal. "They've been so successful and it is down to the whole squad being a team and working hard for each other and giving everything and having individual talent as well like Billy Sharp, Oliver Norwood and many more."

It’s not just about who United have brought in, but how much they have cost. Leon Clarke arrived in Sheffield last summer for just £150,000 and has banged in 19 goals in his first season for the club.

Norwood arrived on loan from Fulham before completing a reported £2 million permanent switch, while Henderson has been a brick wall in goal, keeping 20 clean sheets. The on-loan Manchester United goalkeeper has already expressed his eagerness to be at the club next season.

Compare this to Yorkshire rivals Leeds, who have missed out on automatic promotion again, and spent £7 million on Patrick Bamford alone. The Blades’ starting XI cost less than just one of Leeds’ starters when they last met up.

Wilder’s ability to acknowledge when a system or style of play isn’t working and change it has also been pivotal in securing promotion.

The Blades lost their two opening games of the season to Swansea and Middlesbrough, playing four at the back, but in their third game of the season, there was a tactical change. The club went to playing three at the back, with the wing-backs being allowed to overlap when the team went forward. This created the perfect blend of attacking and defending, and Wilder has stuck with this successful system for the rest of the campaign.

The impact of United’s success won’t just be felt by the club’s fans, though, as their Steel City rivals Wednesday will undoubtedly look to improve their standard of football and join the Blades in the top flight, especially after angering their fans by congratulating the Bramall Lane side on their promotion.

Dimaio also believes there will be a bigger positive in having the Blades back in the Premier League: "It will have a massive effect on not just the fans but the people in Sheffield and around Sheffield to see a team go to the Premier League is just amazing for everyone.

"There will be more people wanting to go and watch because they’re going to be playing the likes of Arsenal and Manchester City and that will inspire the younger generations to go and play football."

While there are still some improvements needed, come August, the clouds will be gone, the sun will shine down on Bramall Lane, the Greasy Chip Butty song will once again be heard in the top flight, and the Shoreham Boys will be making all the noise.