Great Football League Teams 12: Sheffield United, 1981-2
A warm welcome to Ian Rands, ardent Blade and proprietor of the burgeoning blog, A United View on Football. In recent weeks, Ian has identified the best players in the Championship and compared and contrasted those two Kyles: Walker and Naughton. Here, he reverts the clock back thirty years or so.
1979 saw Sheffield United relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time, just four years after missing out on European football by a point. With the best will in the world no one believed that a drop to the Fourth Division would shortly follow.
Saturday 2nd May 1981, Third Division fixture, United at home to Walsall, fellow relegation candidates. One down in the last minute, a penalty is awarded to the Blades. A simple equation, score and United stay up. Regular penalty taker John Matthews bottles the opportunity to take the penalty; instead Don Givens seals his place in Blades folklore as he fluffs the penalty and with it United’s hopes of staying up.
A six year old boy, watching in the stands with his grandparents, knows it is bad news but doesn’t really comprehend the severity of it all. His grandad takes it badly and for the following few days struggles to conceal his upset and frustration, never believing he would ever see his beloved Blades in the Fourth Division. He never did, suffering a heart attack shortly later.
The summer of 1981 saw change at Bramall Lane with Reg Brealey taking the chairmanship and having to steer the club through murky financial waters. Despite a £725,000 loss and crippling debts from the building of the South Stand, the new chairman sanctioned investment in a long term plan, one that involved a manager being offered a length of contract unheard of in football at that time and probably since.
Ian Porterfield had just won the 3rd Division Championship with Rotherham, but the offer of a ten year contract was enough to persuade him to drop two divisions. The objective he was given with that contract was a 1st Division return within five years and despite the financial situation he was given a relatively substantial transfer kitty. He promptly spent £220,000 on goalkeeper Keith Waugh from Peterborough, John McAlle (Wolves) and Paul Richardson (Stoke City), yet the season changing transfers were to be made later in the season.
Life in Division 4 started inauspiciously, with a 1-1 draw at home to Hereford, but it was the return of a former player in late September which kick-started the season. Keith Edwards (a then promising 18 year old) had been sold to Hull six years earlier, after coming through the ranks at Bramall Lane. He made the first start of his second spell against Scunthorpe, a match that started a 17 match unbeaten run. The following week both he and strike partner Bob Hatton scored two apiece in a 4-0 win at Crewe. A strike partnership made in heaven was suitably christened.
The veteran Hatton was the perfect foil for Edwards and was a key contributor to his strike partner’s 35 goals which won Edwards the Adidas Golden Boot. The supply line from out wide was also good and was supplemented by the arrival of Colin Morris from Blackpool in early February. The Morris/Edwards link-up was to prove fruitful for the Blades over the next 4 years.
Although form at times was inconsistent, when United were good, they were very good. Eight times they scored 4 goals in a game. This included both victories over promotion rivals Peterborough, who eventually missed out, finishing fifth, the second of which was in the final home game of the season in front of nearly 24,000 fans. There was also a 5-1 victory at Halifax Town and a 7-3 home victory over Northampton.
In a season of great results and high scoring games it is somewhat typical that the one time the Blades were selected for Match of The Day coverage it was when they were on the receiving end of a hiding, a 5-2 defeat at Colchester. To add insult to injury the Blades were forced to play in the U’s away kit as United’s kit carried a sponsor, which was not allowed on television coverage back then.
The key point in the season came on Tuesday 23rd March, when 22,336 were at Bramall Lane to see Edwards poach a last minute winner against nearest rivals Wigan. A vital goal from no more than a few yards, that maintained momentum in the midst of a 19 match unbeaten run to the end of the season.
The campaign ended with a trip to Feethams and a crowd of 11,130, virtually all Blades fans, roared United on to a 2-0 victory. All around the ground fans were spilling on to the pitch, with one supporter even taking a seat alongside Porterfield on the United bench in the latter stages of the match. Rightfully it was the Edwards-Hatton combination that scored the goals which sealed the title.
This was the season that 3 points for a win was introduced and United finished on 96 points, 5 clear of Wigan and Bradford City. Two seasons later a 3rd place finish took United up to the 2nd Division, but Porterfield was unable to achieve the objective given at the start of his reign.
By 1986, with budgets tightened (every year under Porterfield the club made a loss, including a deficit of over £800,000 in 81-82) and disappointing results, the fans had grown tired of the dour Scot and so had the United board. The appointment of Billy McEwan offered little improvement and it took relegation and subsequent back-to-back promotions under Dave Bassett for Reg Brealey’s dream to be achieved. It just took nine years, instead of five.
Back in 1982, the now 7 year old boy who had seen the Blades go down, had seen them come straight back up and had a photo, stood with his Dad and the Fourth Division trophy, to show for it. It’s just a shame his grandad couldn’t join them on it.