How Sheffield United exorcised their Carlos Tevez-shaped demons

Sheffield United FA
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The 2007 demons left by the Argentine

In July 2013, Sheffield United received their final instalment of the £18.1million that West Ham United agreed to pay the South Yorkshire club back in 2009, as compensation for fielding - over the course of the 2006/07 Premier League season - a footballer they claimed to own but didn’t.

In becoming English football’s most infamous ineligible player, Carlos Tevez would decisively save West Ham from relegation at United’s expense, or as the chair of an FA tribunal would later put it: “We have no doubt that West Ham would have secured at least three fewer points over the 2006-07 season had Carlos Tevez not been playing for the club”.

Three points being the difference between the two clubs after a dramatic last day. When the £6m payment was received that summer, there was no longer so little to divide the two clubs. West Ham finished the 2012/13 season a comfortable 10th in the Premier League and had recently secured a 99-year lease on the brand new 60,000-capacity Olympic Stadium.

The Blades were forced to endure a third successive year in England’s third tier, after suffering a 2-1 defeat to Yeovil Town in the play-off semi-finals; the second consecutive failure in the League One play-offs. That £6m was needed to pay debts and wages but suffice to say, it did not feel like justice in the hearts and minds of United fans.

Chris Wilder's astronomical rise

There will be no final day sorrow this season, however it should end. No legal dispute to make even the most inured divorce lawyer blush. No presence of fear when daring to consider how long it may be before they play in the top flight again.

Instead, there has been relief at reaching 40 points before March, joyful incredulity at the possibility of qualifying for major European competition for the first time in their history and awe at the performance of a manager staking a claim to be amongst the club’s greatest.

Such a claim, for a manager who has been in charge for less than four seasons, would usually be judged to be a little overexuberant.

Yet in taking United from 11th in League One to the brink of Europe, playing a progressive style and demonstrating genuine tactical innovation, Chris Wilder has earned the right to be spoken of in such lofty terms for the patrons of Bramhall Lane.

Admiration for the 51-year-old is not limited to the red side of Sheffield either, with his qualities having drawn praise from Jurgen Klopp and Marcelo Bielsa, while before football’s suspension Wilder was being backed by many as the only serious contender to Klopp for the LMA Manager of the Year award. A title he already holds from last season.

The Blades and Bramhall Lane are here to stay in the top-flight

If Bournemouth have become the model for clubs seeking to establish themselves in the Premier League and doing so in a sustainable way and by playing in an attractive manner, then Wilder and his players have made a brilliant start in emulating the work Eddie Howe has done on the south coast.

As with Howe and Bournemouth following their promotion, it as much for the way in which his team has performed, as it is for the results those performances have garnered, that the plaudits for the lifelong Blade and former right-back have come.

The football is slick, intelligent and inventive. In the early-season comeback from 2-0 down at Stamford Bridge, United – through controlled aggression and physicality - forced Chelsea to seem to shrink in the second half. November brought a free-flowing display at Bramhall Lane, the home side dismantling Burnley inside 45 minutes, in what is likely this season’s finest exhibit of their now trademark overlapping centre-backs.

Three weeks later, Manchester United made the trip across the Peak District and, for 70 minutes, experienced a similarly torrid time. There have been other noteworthy and versatile performances in beating Arsenal at home, Everton away and earning a point at Tottenham Hostpur and Wolverhampton Wanderers.

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Sheffield United's Unique superstars

Just as Wilder’s old school image and earthy charisma can belie a sophisticated footballing mind, equally the seamlessness with which his players have taken the step up to the Premier League has come as some surprise. The nucleus of the squad has been with their manager since the Blades were in League One. It is amazing to consider now that the eleven players who started the first game of the season, did not have a single top-flight appearance between them.

It is a testament to the coaching done on the training ground by Wilder, alongside assistant Alan Knill, that it is genuinely difficult to single out individuals in a team that is so immaculately drilled; any one of five or six could consider themselves unlucky not to be awarded the club’s Player of the Year award in a season in which the star has truly been the team. Dean Henderson has 10 clean sheets, the second-best in the league.

He plays behind, in the back three of Jack O’Connell, John Egan & Chris Basham, the second-best defence in the division. At wing-back, George Baldock and particularly Enda Stevens, offer ceaseless vigour and thrust in both directions of the pitch.

The midfield three of John Lundstram, John Fleck and Oliver Norwood each marry technical skill with a relentless work ethic, in many ways embodying the team as a whole. Individually, not one of the forwards has been prolific, yet in another example of the power of the collective, each one of Lys Mousset, Oli McBurnie, David McGoldrick and club legend, Billy Sharp, have made invaluable contributions at times this season.

2007 now just a shadow

It is almost thirteen years since Carlos Tevez scored the only goal of the game in a 1-0 win for West Ham at Old Trafford on the final day of the season, which alongside their 2-1 defeat by Wigan, would relegate Neil Warnock’s Sheffield United.

In that time, their fans have been forced to endure a further relegation, four play-off defeats, boardroom tumult and the ignominy of four seasons in England’s third tier. The likelihood is that they will finish this season above West Ham and in the Premier League.

Yet for all the satisfaction that might bring, it is possible that it is the ability to finally move on from that season which is the most wonderful part of Chris Wilder’s alchemy. There are new memories now.

By Michael Murphy

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