Cast your minds back to the halcyon days of last summer. The sun shone (occasionally), the beer flowed freely and the Blades were looking forward to what a top flight season under Chris Wilder and Alan Knill’s tutelage would look like. There were many questions…
Would overlapping centre halves work in the top division? Would a team of bargain buys and cast-offs find themselves dazzled by the bright lights that would beam their every move to a worldwide audience of billions? Why on earth was John Lundstram listed as a defender in the Fantasy League? And exactly how horrendously biased was VAR going to be?
Survival was our ultimate goal, with the spectre of our last Premier League season haunting our darkest nightmares and tempering fevered dreams of perhaps something more. Would Chris Wilder stand for anything less?
Despite a lack of investment over the summer, Norwich were seen by the pundits as certs for survival. And Villa were a grand old club with a history and trophy cabinet worthy of their place in the top tier. As for Sheffield United, most experts had us rooted to the bottom of the table, a team of triers but ultimately, Not Good Enough.
Even though the Blades had a reasonable start to the season, picking up five points from the first four games, the press stuck to their narrative; unfashionable northern cloggers, big lads up front, hard-working but ultimately without skill. But quietly and without fanfare, United carried on picking up results. After ten games, we were 8th in the table, on equal points with Manchester United and above a stuttering Spurs.
Villa had also picked up wins. A 5-1 defeat of Norwich at Carrow Road in October was a cause for celebration, as was continued progression in the League Cup but there were few draws to boost their points total. December was particularly miserable with defeats to Chelsea, Leicester, us, Southampton and Watford and a total of 4 points in a run of seven games. Even worse news was the sidelining of John McGinn for three months with a fractured ankle.
In January, news started to spread of a new virus half the world away but closer to home and with safety in the league looking almost confirmed, Unitedites started to, only half-jokingly, talk about European qualification. Aston Villa’s continued success in the League Cup and run to the final saw the fixture against the Blades postponed and United’s progression in the FA Cup meant it wasn’t rearranged before the season came to a premature pause on 13th March.
The Blades had been on a good run of form, their last defeat at the hands of Man City back in January. For Villa meanwhile, the cessation of matches was probably a blessed relief. A disappointing defeat to Manchester City in the League Cup final was bookended by a run of four losses in the league which saw Villa slowly slip down to 19th as Bournemouth, Watford and West Ham tried to claw their way to safety. Only Norwich, rooted to the bottom since Boxing Day, had lost more games.
It’s now June. Three months have passed and while football will return tomorrow, it won’t be the same. No need for rail tickets, train beers and endless discussions about loyalty points. No pre-match meet-ups and post-match piss-ups in the various hostelries of London Road and Heeley. To be replaced with elaborate social-distancing schemes, routine testing of players and staff and in-game Zoom calls taking the place of spectators in the stands. Whether the continuation of the season is the right thing to do or not was a decision out of our hands, but the prevailing mood ranges from “it’s better than nothing I suppose” to “I can’t bloody wait!”.
The audience will be huge for this first game and the Blades will go into it hoping that the three month break hasn’t interrupted their momentum as they look to fire on two fronts in both the league and FA Cup. At the time of writing, the Club have reported that Chris Wilder has a full squad available at his disposal, though as the hours tick down towards kick off, the rumour mill has gone into overdrive. Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick have signed new deals to 2022 with Ollie Norwood securing a deal until 2023.
Villa will apparently be bolstered by the return of John McGinn but Tom Heaton and Wesley are set to miss the rest of the season after being removed from the 25 man squad in January through injury. The Premier League has confirmed that, while they will consider “exceptional circumstances”, the squad list should remain unchanged from the one submitted at the end of the last transfer window. The game against United is followed by a tough set of fixtures with games against Chelsea, Newcastle and Wolves rounding out the month followed by a trip to Anfield.
So, restock your fridges, get your takeaways pre-ordered and get set for an unexpected summer of league and FA Cup football. While we won’t be there to tell you about atrocious corners, we will be here as ever.
If you’ve missed having a flutter on the Premier League action, the Blades are currently favourites with William Hill with 5/4 for a Sheffield United win, 23/10 for the draw and 23/10 for a home win. Our partners at Bet and Skill are offering a special bookies offer here. You you can grab a no risk, no deposit free bet over at Bet and Skill ahead of the comeback match by visiting the site.