Blades look to cut their losses after dropping a division
Jonah alert! After watching Stockport get relegated, Ben Collins was despatched to cover Sheffield United's must-win home game with Barnsley. Guess what happened next...
Four years ago, Sheffield United were in the Premier League. Danny Webber needs no reminding that but for the thickness of a post, they could still be there. Yet following Saturday's 2-2 draw at home to Barnsley, the Blades are now preparing for their first season in the third tier since 1988/89.
United fans revelled in seeing derby rivals Sheffield Wednesday get relegated from the Championship last season. And having narrowly missed out on the play-offs, not even the most pessimistic Blade would have envisaged suffering the same fate 12 months later.
But England's sixth city is now facing the stark reality of not having a club in the top two divisions for the first time since 1980. Barnsley will finish as South Yorkshire's top club Ã¢ÂÂ and having spent so long in the shadow of their Sheffield rivals, their fans in turn relished the opportunity to hammer the final nail into United's coffin.
They packed the away end, chanting "Are you Wednesday in disguise?" They mocked the Blades boss, singing "There's only one Micky Adams" while asking him to give them a wave Ã¢ÂÂ needless to say, it wasn't forthcoming. After Danny Haynes made it 2-2 late on, thus denying United the win they needed to keep their survival hopes alive till the last game, the away end chirped "You're going down in a minute". If you want sympathy, don't go to a relegation battle in Yorkshire.
Tykes fans take the mick(e)y
The Blades have little time to nurse their bruised egos, however. Over on the other side of the steel city, Wednesday went through some bleak times financially before Milan Mandaric took over in December. Now an extensive cost-cutting mission must begin at Bramall Lane. United were banking on a quick return to the Premier League. It didn't happen. Instead they are heading out of the Championship with one of the biggest wage bills in the division.
It's difficult to pinpoint any one reason for their demise; it's more the culmination of a series of factors, namely financial mismanagement, lack of player investment, managerial changes and downright bad luck.
Kevin Blackwell led United to the 2009 play-off final in his first full season, but top scorer James Beattie was sold mid-season before Tottenham signed youth products Kyle Naughton and Kyle Walker in a combined ÃÂ£10m deal that summer. After that Wembley defeat, last season's eighth-placed finish was seen as an underachievement Ã¢ÂÂ so when United made a poor start to the current campaign, Blackwell was given the sack.
The Blades board opted for continuity, with highly-regarded assistant Gary Speed promoted to manager, only for the rookie boss to win just six in 18 before taking the Wales job in December. His successor Adams also failed to inspire an immediate upturn in fortunes as it took 13 games to get his first win.
Adams had enough time to turn things round, but by then the character and team spirit built by Neil Warnock had long gone. Injuries robbed United of key players and they've resorted to too many loan signings the last two years, diluting the identity of the squad further. Saturday's team was mainly a mix of loan players and unproven youngsters, with a handful of senior pros making up the numbers.
Blades fans try to take it all in
While it is natural there have been question marks over Adams' future, the Blades board will be wary of making another managerial change and appointing a fourth permanent boss in less than a year.
In truth, the Blades have failed to rebuild their squad sufficiently after selling their prized assets in the last few years. Yet what makes their current predicament even more alarming is that despite that profit from transfer fees, the Premier League parachute payments and the compensation they received from West Ham (that's another story!), United were still riddled with debt as they came into the current campaign.
Before United can even think about bouncing back up at the first attempt Ã¢ÂÂ as they did in 1988/89 under Dave Bassett before making it back-to-back promotions the following season Ã¢ÂÂ much must be done to balance the books. In practice, just as industries across the country have discovered during the recession, that usually means cutting the wage bill.
Daniel Bogdanovic was signed as a free agent last summer after the Malta striker turned down a new deal at Barnsley; on Saturday the Tykes fans delighted in singing "Daniel Big-wad-ovic". Another big-earner set to move on is Darius Henderson. The former Watford striker has come under fire from fans since his recent return from injury, but they will be keen to keep Lee Williamson. The combative midfielder was everywhere against Barnsley, scoring his third goal in the last three since his own comeback.
The United faithful got right behind the youngsters, though. With the senior pros failing to impress during the run-in, Adams has promoted the likes of Matt Lowton, Harry Maguire and Jordan Slew into the first team. Sure, they made mistakes. Maguire's slip gifted Haynes the opener for Barnsley. But the 18-year-old centre-back did not let that affect his game, immediately restoring his composure and continuing to play from the back, while right-back Lowton headed the equaliser and fired over shortly after.
Lowton celebratesÃ¢ÂÂ¦ but it wouldn't end well
They weren't able to pull off a 'great escape' but given the circumstances, they acquitted themselves well and the ordeal may, in fact, do them more good than harm in the long run.
United are keen to keep hold of their top youth products and build for the future. There's even more home-grown talent waiting in the wings, too, as the Blades play Manchester United in the FA Youth Cup final this month.
But even after they slash the wage bill this summer, United may still have to cash in on their most promising youngsters to help cut their debt. Either way, it may be best if they look at next season as merely one for consolidation.