• Vie. May 17th, 2024

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Inside Sheffield United’s season of woe: 100 goals conceded, transfer chaos and ownership concerns

Inside Sheffield United’s season of woe: 100 goals conceded, transfer chaos and ownership concerns


Sheffield United have had bad seasons before. But nothing quite like this.

Just three victories in the 36 league matches so far tells its own miserable story. But, really, anyone wanting a true flavour of just how bad the past nine months have been for the Bramall Lane side need look no further than their ‘goals against’ column.

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Saturday’s 3-1 home loss against Nottingham Forest means United have conceded 100 goals in those 36 league matches. To put those three figures into context, only one other club in the 32-year Premier League era have racked up an unwanted century and Swindon Town’s class of 1993-94 played 42 games in what was then a 22-team division in allowing their 100.

Not even Derby County in 2007-08, officially the all-time worst Premier League team after conceding 89 times en route to collecting a pathetic 11 points from their 38 matches (United have 16 with two to play), were as defensively shambolic.

No wonder gallows humour abounds among the fans right now. As the stands empty during the final stages of yet another sorry defeat, quips can be heard along the lines of: “I’m staying to the final whistle, as I want to beat the traffic!”

A little over a year ago, the mood was very different after a remarkable automatic promotion under Paul Heckingbottom, who somehow plotted a path through considerable off-field chaos. His side set a new club record points total for the top two divisions with 91.

But now there is only despair.

Relegation was confirmed with three games to play. Which was not quite as bad as their exit from the Premier League in 2021, when United’s fate was sealed with a joint-record half a dozen matches left.

In truth, this season’s relative stay of execution was more down to the failings of others, particularly an inability to balance the books on the part of Forest and Everton that triggered damaging points deductions. Without those punishments, United would have been mathematically down weeks ago.

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Some of the problems could not be helped.

Losing big dressing-room characters such as John Egan and Chris Basham to long-term injuries within a week of each other in early autumn was a hammer blow (neither player has so much as made the bench since). As was Iliman Ndiaye’s U-turn last summer over whether to sign a new contract.

But there’s also been far too much muddled thinking in the boardroom and a lack of fight on the pitch over the past year for United to have stood a chance of staying in the division.

There’s no shame in being relegated from the Premier League. But there is in going down like this.


Lisbon. July, 2023.

United are back at the training centre of the Portugal national team, Cidade do Futebol, for a second consecutive pre-season. The post-promotion mood among the players and coaching staff is upbeat.

The financial problems that led to chief executive Stephen Bettis having to publicly rubbish suggestions the club were going into administration as recently as four months earlier means transfer spending will be limited.

Just £20million has been set aside. The rest of the cash that accompanies a club’s admission to the Premier League is needed to rectify problems so acute that the EFL, the 72-club league of the three divisions below the top flight, had imposed a transfer embargo on United earlier in the year after failing to meet scheduled payments for previous signings.

Despite that relatively minuscule budget — fellow promoted side Burnley would go on to spend £100million in the summer window — hopes are high that Heckingbottom’s team can battle hard against the odds. Much of that is down to the presence of Ndiaye, a pivotal figure in United going up with his 14 goals and 11 assists in the league.

Now into the final 12 months of his contract, the 23-year-old Senegal international is wanted by Marseille, the club he’d supported as a boy. The French media is full of reports a £13million deal has been agreed.


Ndiaye with Heckingbottom during pre-season (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Behind the scenes, however, Heckingbottom has been working hard on talking the player around.

As pre-season began with a 2-0 win over non-League neighbours Chesterfield ahead of the trip to Lisbon, those pleas appeared to have paid off, with Ndiaye informing his delighted team-mates he was going nowhere. A new contract had been agreed in principle, hence the upbeat mood in Portugal a few nights later as players and staff watch the club’s in-house media team filming a video to mark such a welcome turn of events.

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Billy Sharp, released the previous month on age grounds despite the staff recommending that the 37-year-old captain be kept on, even features. His pre-recorded voice message is seen as the handing over of the footballing baton in the red and white half of Sheffield. Ndiaye is now in possession of the iconic No 10 shirt that both Sharp and Tony Currie before him had worn with such distinction.

The footage was destined never to be seen.

A couple of days later, Ndiaye cuts a subdued figure around the Lisbon training camp. The suggestion among his team-mates is Chelsea and Ivory Coast icon Didier Drogba, a former Marseille striker himself, has been in touch to push the case for a move to the south of France.

Nobody knows if this is true or not, but Marseille soon make a £20million bid. United, knowing Ndiaye would be able to leave for free in a year’s time, accept. A generational talent, the sort to give even a club with as limited a spending power as United a chance among the Premier League big boys, is on his way.

Suddenly, the picture-postcard blue sky above the Portuguese capital feels less warm. All anyone can see are dark clouds on the horizon.

The mood of the coaching staff worsens further a few days later — Sander Berge, another of the club’s few players equipped for the step up, is also to be sold.

This comes despite pre-season having been built around the Norwegian midfielder, effectively negating all that training groundwork. Worse still, he’s going to Burnley, likely direct rivals in the quest to avoid relegation during the season.

Berge is also scheduled to be out of contract in 2024 so the £15million fee again helps soften the blow in a financial sense. But the message to the outside world is clear — United are giving up before a ball has been kicked in anger, happy to take the money from a season back among the elite and run.

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How else can it be viewed, with the squad now infinitely weaker than the one that came up in May, having lost not only Berge and Ndiaye since promotion but also loan duo James McAtee and Tommy Doyle, who have returned to parent club Manchester City?

United do embark on a belated recruitment drive, but even with the Ndiaye and Berge money they are fighting a losing battle. McAtee does eventually return on a fresh loan. And Gustavo Hamer, one of the Championship’s more creative talents, arrives from Coventry City in a permanent deal.


Hamer joined late in the summer window (Matt McNulty/Getty Images)

The required quality, though, just isn’t there. Worse still, the initial lack of urgency shown by the club in the market gave the opening month of the Premier League the feel of pre-season, as players arrive throughout August and then take time to get up to speed.

All the while, games are passing United by: during the season’s first seven days, eminently winnable matches against Crystal Palace and Forest yield zero points.

As if to underline just how unprepared the squad is for the unique demands of taking on the elite, the bench for those opening two matches contains players who spent the previous season either turning out for United Under-21s or on loan in League One, League Two and National League North — the third, fourth and sixth tiers of English football.

Will Osula and Benie Traore, two young strikers with zero top-flight experience in England, start not only those Palace and Forest matches but also against 2022-23 treble winners Manchester City in the final league fixture before the summer window closes on September 1.

Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised at United being one of the worst-prepared teams in Premier League history. This is, after all, a club where the vast majority of the senior players are set to be out of contract next month.

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With loanees McAtee, Ben Brereton Diaz and Yasser Larouci heading back to their respective parent clubs and Cameron Archer returning to Aston Villa now United’s relegation has been confirmed, this means as many as 18 members of the squad could leave this summer.

This is a damning state of affairs which smacks of an ownership regime with no cohesive plan for even the medium-term.

Compare this to Burnley, where an ageing squad has been overhauled in the past two years following relegation. Vincent Kompany’s men look ready to bounce straight back if they do drop into the Championship for next season.

The same cannot be said at Bramall Lane.

The failure to tie down Ndiaye, in particular, a year or so before his departure, despite the urgings of the coaching staff, proved costly. The fee received was way below his ability when Marseille came calling.

Results this season weren’t too bad, initially — City needed an 88th-minute goal from Rodri to win  2-1. United led going into stoppage time at Tottenham Hotspur on September 16, only to see three points turned into none by two sucker-punch strikes.

Then came Newcastle United’s eight unanswered goals at Bramall Lane a week later. Heckingbottom’s decision to go for it with attacking substitutions when 3-0 down at half-time backfired spectacularly.

Another collapse followed in a 5-0 defeat a month later at Arsenal, by which time the soft underbelly of the squad was clear.

Even during that miserable relegation season of 2020-21, when United took until their 18th game to win in the league under Chris Wilder, 17 of their 29 defeats were by the odd goal, despite the obvious gulf in class.

The backbone shown by experienced campaigners such as Sharp, Egan, Basham, David McGoldrick and Enda Stevens in the face of such adversity felt admirable at the time. Now, it seems positively heroic, considering the number of times the current crop have waved the white flag of surrender after falling behind.

A change of manager that saw Wilder return to replace Heckingbottom in early December made little difference. Results have continued to nosedive, particularly at home, where 33 goals have been conceded in the nine matches since Christmas.


Sheffield United lost 8-0 at home to Newcastle (George Wood/Getty Images)

Jack Robinson, one of the few players who can hold his head high this season, having to be separated from team-mate Vinicius Souza during February’s 1-0 away loss against Wolverhampton Wanderers spoke volumes about a fractured dressing room that has had seven different captains but little on-field leadership.

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Souza, a £10million summer signing from Belgian side Lommel, has been jeered recently, as has Ivo Grbic, the hapless goalkeeper brought in from Atletico Madrid in the winter window for £3.5m. Neither has received much sympathy from Wilder, who has a year left on his contract. “I didn’t see anybody have a go at Jayden Bogle, I didn’t see anybody have a go at Oli Arblaster,” he said pointedly, after last month’s 4-1 loss at home to Burnley.

Owner Prince Abdullah is culpable in many eyes for this mess.

His doomed attempts to sell the club to two questionable characters — Dozy Mmobuosi has since been accused of fraud by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which he denies, while Henry Mauriss was jailed for wire fraud — made United a laughing stock long before this season’s on-field struggles.

Being hit with a two-point penalty for next season over that inability to meet scheduled transfer payments has only deepened concerns as to how the club is being run.

The worry now, with the Prince still at the helm, is that United may follow another Yorkshire club to recently stink out the Premier League by continuing to slide.

Huddersfield Town were relegated from the top flight five years ago, finishing last with three wins and 16 points — an identical record to bottom club United’s now with two games to play.

A big rebuild was needed after a sorry second year among the elite had left an indelible mark on not only the shell-shocked players — memorably once summed up by captain Jonathan Hogg as feeling like a punch-drunk boxer after “one too many beatings” — but also the supporters.

Eight games into the following season, however, Huddersfield were bottom of the Championship with a solitary point. Head coach Jan Siewert had already paid for that poor start with his job. Danny Cowley’s arrival instigated a mini-revival that saw Huddersfield pull off a great escape and even make the play-offs in 2021-22, but there was to be no fairytale turnaround in the long-term, as today’s relegation to League One proves.

United should beware — things can get a lot worse.

(Top photo: Getty Images)