Every city has a story to tell with its roads, buildings and gardens. Sheffield is no different. Mainly a symbol for eras gone by, this is a city which has seen tough times in the present. Sheffield was known for its industries. It was one of the forefronts of the industrial revolution, and now that the world has changed, Sheffield had to change too. It’s now evolved into a hub for higher education. The times changed, the means changed, but the heart of Sheffield remained young with the young workers of yesteryear and then evolved into the college-going youth of the country with its jubilance and enthusiasm.
There are various indicators which point towards the days gone by, and you might look at the industrialised infrastructure or some dilapidated factories. One glaring symbol are the Blades. Sheffield United, a football club from the city, is one of the oldest clubs to exist. They are called the Blades because of their links to the working men when the club was founded. The culture might not have stuck, but the name did. However, like the city, Sheffield United and their prestigious neighbours Sheffield Wednesday had seen better days before. The fate and morale of the city were almost magically entwined with that of its football clubs.
They play their football in Bramall Lane which, in acceptance with the city, has always been a factory. When Sheffield were promoted to the Premier League, they had to spend 5 million euros to bring the stadium up to the league’s standard. They last played in the Premier League, the first tier of English football, in 2007. It had been a while, and unsurprisingly, they were put dead last in the league table predictions of anyone and everyone with an opinion. The club knew what they were, and they knew exactly what they were in for. There were no delusions of finishing in the top half of the table, and the object was to not get relegated.
Football is a very funny sport in the sense where people always forget that footballers are humans. Our predictions and our choices are based on the dehumanising of the footballers—to an extent where they are mere pawns in the grand scheme of things. This is the one grave error which we make, which we’ll always make. We underestimate the power of the human will. We don’t realise that behind all the big names and glorified pawns, there are people who work themselves to death so that they can make a difference. ‘My pawn is better than yours’ is a classic comparison that we fall into without realising that there is virtually no way that we can prove our points until those two players decide to go against each other alone. Even more interestingly, that would then be a different sport. The beauty of football lies in the facet of it where comparisons rule the narrative. However, they are all worthless as football is a team sport. It’s all about the team and Sheffield, like the motto of the city, are a team forged in steel.
Chris Wilder, the manager of Sheffield United, had played for the club before. He had seen the glory days where Sheffield was in the top flight, and it was competing. He played for them in the darkest times of the club when the club was in the lower tier and was fighting for relevance. His work was cut out for him now as he attempted to make his beloved United a mainstay in the golden competition. It’s wonderful how this one man and his disciples have gone ahead and progressed to their goals while Sheffield, the city, has clawed its way back to glory. Wilder led Sheffield from the League One, the third tier of English football, to the Premier League in three seasons. Every single thing about this man and his boys screams grit and determination. This is a team with a soul of steel—one which can only be forged through hard times.
The season started, and Chris Wilder had lots of questions to answer—he had to set the identity of this club. He had the privilege of establishing a spine that might be in place for decades. He chose to be what he knows—he chose to be Sheffield. Sheffield United are a team who are very organised in defence, almost industrial in their construct but with modern innovations like a system where their centre backs rotate with their fullbacks. The team played with an old school ideology with hard passes, hard tackles and applying pressure on the opposition.
The season began. They didn’t know if they could beat everyone with their hard work, but they went ahead and worked harder than they possibly could.
The results weren’t astonishing. They were there; they were the truth, a harsh slap in the face of moronic football fans like the author of this article, who saw Sheffield in the European spots after ten games. Sheffield United were fifth! It was a result of the massive job that Chris Wilder had done. Two promotions in the space of three years and now they were in the League position where the best clubs in the world are supposed to be. The city felt rejuvenated, and it was a long time coming.
By the end of the season, Sheffield had placed in the top half of the table, just a few points away from the Champions League, where they could’ve played against Real Madrid and Barcelona. It was a far cry from the predictions that people had placed on them at the beginning of the season, but still, it said a lot about the club when it was disappointed to miss out on European football. It’s not a story of wonder and amazement, but a truth that we all need to face, people play this sport. No matter how big these stars might be or how well they might play, they are still human. If you underestimate a group of motivated men like these, you’re going to end up looking stupid.
This didn’t have anything to do with chance. The club had performed with peak efficiency—from the owner to the groundsmen who made the pitch look good. This was all possible because of the exceptional recruiting of the investors as seen by the appointment of Chris Wilder and the signings of Oliver Norwood, Sander Berge, John Egan, and John Lundstram. Every single player knew what he was supposed to do before he came into the club. It was clockwork at its finest—everything fit in spectacularly, almost too spectacularly.
However, they have gone into this transfer window and recruited again, reminding us of their calibre. They lost their starting goalkeeper Dean Henderson when his loan spell from Manchester United ended. They went ahead and signed Aaron Ramsdale from Bournemouth, a club that was relegated, and it is another genius signing by a smart club.
We saw the stories unfold in front of us—the story of Billy Sharp, the story of McGoldrick and most importantly, the story of Sheffield. Football almost always abides by the cold realities of the world in money and power. It doesn’t have many places for beauty and stories, but every now and then, a ‘Sheffield’ comes along and makes us wonder at the game we all love. Everyone who calls themselves a football fan cannot wait to see Sheffield do this all over again next season and to hear the delirious chants of their 30000 fans. Sheffield are where they are supposed to be, and they are here to stay.
Written by Aniket Awasthi for MTTN
Featured Image by Swagat Sarkar for MTTN
Images sourced from Sheffield United and sportinglife
Edited by Rushil Dalal for MTTN