The Steel City blues of Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United
One of the great English footballing cities. Both clubs steeped in tradition and history, but both currently struggling to regain the former glories that included Premier League spells within the last decade. Welcome to the trials and tribulations of football in Sheffield. Rich Prew looks at the recent history of the two Steel City rivals.
Until very recently, the highest profile problems have been suffered by Sheffield Wednesday. Days away from extinction towards the end of 2010 over unpaid VAT and tax bills, relegation to League One nine months ago appeared the least of the club’s problems. The club was saved when bought by Milan Mandaric for £1. From here, it is possible to imagine a haul back out of League One now off the field security is at last achieved, and the financial constraints that have dogged the club for years are a thing of the past.
“Milan Mandaric has become a big favourite at the club. There has been a lot of optimism, which has not been seen for several years. There is now a concept and an aim, which is a stark difference for a club that has been lacking in ambition and wandering aimlessly for several years due to the financial constraints.
“Now that our financial future is secure, there’s hope that we can go places and fans have been delighted with Mandaric’s ambition. There is more sustainability under Mandaric now, due to his financial acumen and stewardship. The release of players like Darren Purse and Luke Boden shows that we will never let our finances go off the rails again.
“There has been some concern over Mandaric’s past and reputation – as well as his motives for buying the club, his long-term interest and reputation for tinkering with first-team affairs – but these have only been raised by a minority. Most are simply grateful for still having a club.”
Unfortunately for Wednesday, such new-found security has been accompanied by under-performance on the field. This recently led to the sacking of Alan Irvine, with former Owls player Gary Megson his replacement. Wednesday took just 25 points from their last 22 league matches under Irvine, conceded 23 goals in the last eight league games, conceded 15 goals in the last four league matches away from Hillsborough and were only five points off the relegation zone. While Wednesday fans liked Irvine, most were supportive of the change Mandaric made.
So, as Wednesday fans perhaps dare to dream for the first time in a decade, across the city Sheffield United supporters face an uncertain future with the club in the bottom three of the Championship and now facing the consequences of some ambitious strategies gone wrong over the last three years.
“The club made some ambitious decisions (gambles with the benefit of hindsight) in the period following relegation under Neil Warnock. The decision to appoint Bryan Robson was not welcomed by the fans, but a decision symptomatic of a board who were pursuing grand global ambitions and saw the need for a high profile name.
“Alongside Robson’s appointment was a strategy of player purchases and salary decisions that might have been better done whilst in the Premier League. The arrival of players such as James Beattie, Gary Naysmith and subsequently Lee Hendrie had an inflationary effect on squad wages.
“The failure of Robson and the Play Off final defeat under Blackwell the following season really signalled the end of our immediate ambition of a return. The recognition of the Tevez money in the accounts turned a significant loss into a small profit. However, the underlying business model was flawed and only sustainable with further investment or loans from chairman Kevin McCabe and his family companies. We were also left with a squad overpaid for their abilities and declining in market value.
“It meant that we were left with a small, but expensive, squad of players last season, propped up by loan players well into double figures over the course of the season. No continuity or consistency. We were promised that would not continue this season, but it has – a reflection of the continuing restructuring and falling crowds.”
Now, shorn of the safety blanket of Premier League parachute payments and with the legacy of Premier League ambition, both in terms of wage bills and investments overseas in China and Hungary, the club faces a crucial few months.
More than anything, the overseas strategy once regarded as visionary looks incongruous with the club’s current potential. That strategy relied on the club being in the top flight. With that status not materialising, the costs are too burdensome both to McCabe and thus the club. With hindsight, the choice of clubs was also flawed. China has never really taken to football and the Hungarian game, despite the great history attached to some of the teams (including United’s partner Ferencvaros), is at a low ebb.
For sure, with that squad wage bill reckoned still to exceed £10million, there is no suggestion that the club’s financial affairs are at all prepared for the possibility of relegation into League One, which is increasingly looking a very real prospect given recent results. There is enormous pressure on John Pemberton and his academy staff to unearth another Kyle Walker or Kyle Naughton simply to tide the club over.
What odds both Sheffield giants being in League One next season? The large and passionate fan bases of both clubs have had to contend with much in the last decade, near extinction on the one hand and a powerful sense of resentment over a controversial relegation out of the Premier League on the other.
For Wednesday fans, a new and unusual stability is accompanied, of course, by thoughts of recovery. Hopefully, that expectation can be tempered. Ledger explains:
“Some fans (including myself) do realise that the club needs to re-build effectively. Spending loads of money to gain promotion isn’t an option, as it is the years of neglect and overspending in the 1990s that has led to Wednesday’s decline. It may take one season or three seasons, but the club needs to be ready for the next time we are in the Championship.
“That was the problem last time round. We got promoted too quickly and didn’t have the players or the finances to stay in the division long enough. It’s going to be a long, hard re-building process if we are not to be a team yo-yoing between the Championship and League One. It needs time and patience but some fans do realise that, behind the expectation of promotion.”
For United, that stability remains absent and until the club is structured for tougher times on and off the field, no sustainable recovery appears likely. The strategy is changing, as Rands elaborates:
“McCabe is majority shareholder and major creditor. He appointed Trevor Birch as Chief Executive, initially to seek investment partners but now with a brief to run day-to-day operations. The aim of investment has been replaced by an objective of restructuring.”
That change of emphasis has to be achieved though against shifting sands on the pitch, with the possibility of relegation looming. Patience may be in short supply in football these days, but if you are a fan of football in Sheffield, prepare for the long haul – whether you appear past the worst at Hillsborough or staring straight at it at Bramall Lane.