Everybody wants to rule the world rang out at Molineux on the final whistle and for an intoxicating time, Sheffield United probably felt like they did.
Wolves barely showed teeth on their way to a victory that consigned the Blades to the Championship just a year after their Champions League charge, but it summed up their dismal season that only 18 seconds separated an Enda Stevens strike on goal and a Willian Jose winner.
“No one can fault the effort,” said caretaker-boss Paul Heckingbottom and, after weeks of leaden limbs, tired minds and infuriating square passes, they could not fault it here, yet chances squandered, mistakes punished and a lack of quality where it really matters left a familiar feeling.
There was symbolism in the emptiness of the scene, only a handful present to see the side so vibrant last season slip away quietly to a melancholic melody as Oliver Norwood crouched on the turf.
There are six fixtures left for supporters to endure of a season as startlingly wretched as the last one was wondrous, and the last whistle cannot come quickly enough.
From last year’s dizzying ninth-placed finish to the ignominy of the joint-earliest relegation in Premier League history and the wounds left by the acrimonious departure of Chris Wilder, it has been a jolt of painful proportions, a post-lockdown annus horribilis.
At least Derby can keep that record.
Sheffield United were not supposed to be here this early.
Two promotions in three seasons masterminded by the fan who “lived the dream” had hauled a club for too long hindered by ineptitude and underinvestment out of its slumberous state.
But they belonged, against all footballing and financial logic, and it was bewitching: their galloping centre-backs, their empowering Bramall Lane crowd, their fearless manager whose rise from non-League aligned powerfully with the career paths of players he dragged with him to new heights.
Theirs was a tale that gave hope to dreamers down the pyramid. Even if overachievement distorted reality, the memories will remain vivid.
They had risen to sixth by the end of their final game before lockdown, Billy Sharp fittingly scoring a winner in front of 31,000 at Bramall Lane. Afterwards, only Liverpool, who could boast anything like the same devotion between supporters, players and manager, would suffer as spectacular a drop in form in soulless stadia.
There was optimism ahead of a second term, if realism, after the sheer silliness of their overachievement. Summer transfers had injected youth and athleticism, if not the proven performers for whom Wilder had sought to break the wage ceiling, and new contracts rewarded experienced players backed to deliver again.
But a hurried pre-season in Scotland, where one game was abandoned at half-time due to torrential rain, felt prophetic in hindsight. The storm clouds never really lifted.
Wilder lost several key players from his thin squad to international duty during the condensed preparation time and it showed in their opening game, where two goals were conceded inside a ragged first six minutes.
A week later, John Egan was dubiously sent off at Aston Villa on the same afternoon John Lundstram saw a penalty saved. Patrick Bamford would soon strike late in a game they had dominated but been familiarly wasteful. Small margins bred smaller ones. Slender wins became slender defeats. Suddenly, Sheffield United were spiralling.
No promoted side in Premier League history had conceded as few goals as their 39 last term but Jack O’Connell, Egan and Chris Basham would play just 83 minutes together all season.
O’Connell’s injury – one stretching back into the previous term – left United shorn of a vital attacking component as well as a defensive one. Wilder described his loss as “bigger relatively than [Liverpool losing] Virgil van Dijk,” and no one was able to replicate the progressive passing that came with the aerial prowess.
Behind the backline, Aaron Ramsdale struggled desperately initially, though he was not granted anywhere near the kind of protection offered to Dean Henderson. He faced significantly more shots and higher-quality shots as his team-mates became increasingly passive, winning the ball far less frequently up the pitch, allowing their opponents more time and space to build attacks.
Further injuries to John Fleck and Sander Berge exacerbated the disrupted dynamic. Only Sean Dyche at Burnley had made fewer changes to his starting XI than Wilder’s 51 last season. That number this term stands at 82. Connections could only flicker. Patterns of play so long rehearsed felt forced.
The glaring shortcomings are there in the numbers. They have conceded 56 goals and scored a paltry 17, with only 10 from open play. But data will never be able to reach the fragile corners of the human psyche. It cannot quantify confidence, or account for errant decision-making.
There were creditable performances against Liverpool and Manchester City, the sort that suggested that results would turn but still the kicks came. A late Leicester winner from Jamie Vardy saw Wilder sink to his knees on the touchline and it was an image that felt tough to shake.
They had to wait until their 18th game of the season for a first league win. By then, a fractious relationship between the manager and owner Prince Abdullah had broken beyond repair. The Saudi told Sky Sports News in an interview that Wilder had twice wanted to resign before his departure “by mutual consent” last month. The manager, long feeling his remit increasingly altered and his authority undermined, knew the working dynamic was unsustainable.
Heckingbottom has faced a daunting challenge but the team has looked rudderless for the most part since and a sense of unease has remained off the field.
Jason Tindall was a surprise arrival to support the U23 coach brought to the club by Wilder. The former manager’s backroom team were tasked with office-based rather than training-ground work before their departures and assistant Alan Knill is still at the club but in the shadows. In the boardroom, chairman Prince Musaad – though a scarce public presence – has stepped down for what the club says are “personal reasons”.
Heckingbottom’s spell in charge is expected to be a short one with the Bramall Lane hierarchy working through a list of potential candidates that includes those in employment, including Oostende’s Alexander Blessin.
Replacing Wilder is a formidable task. It is easy to fall in love with a winning team but feelings ran deeper; this was a first love rekindled, with its unspoken understanding and shared rituals. Beyond the sentiment, the club has functioned entirely in his vision, with recruitment based around his system.
A patient approach to a defining appointment for Prince Abdullah is prudent. Bryan Robson’s disastrous reign at this last juncture is warning enough. But not least because Wilder’s summer exit was long felt inevitable, by the time the curtain has fallen on a crushing campaign, the club must know and communicate where it is heading; who it wants to be.
There is an irony that Norwich – who lost the final 10 fixtures of their own doomed campaign but had long been planning for the following term – returned to the Premier League at the first attempt on the day of Sheffield United’s demotion.
A quarter of sides relegated from the Premier League have bounced straight back but continuity and clarity are usually key. Daniel Farke did significant business early last summer, kept key performers like Emi Buendia, Max Aarons and Teemu Pukki, and pointedly sought to add players unburdened psychologically by the drop.
There are lessons too to be learned from Carrow Road when it comes to infrastructure and strategic investment.
“Football’s an infinite game,” Norwich sporting director Stuart Webber told the Financial Times after relegation. “When people say, ‘Why are you spending £2m on a gym? Spend it on a striker, you have more chance of winning next week’. You probably have… but [facilities will] train more strikers than £2m can buy you. In 15 years, you’ll look back and think, ‘We brought 30 players through here’.”
Burnley, another club who stuck steadfastly to their plan, spent £10.6m on their Barnfield Training Centre after returning to the top flight. In contrast, the lack of progress off the pitch was a source of deep frustration for Wilder, who had pushed for training-ground improvements and Category One academy status long before the pandemic.
A statement that accompanied news of Wilder’s departure spoke of intentions “to keep the core of the player group together and continue to invest further in the academy and the first team”. Supporters will want to see intentions matched by actions.
The squad will need reshaping at the end of an era but Wilder believed there was no reason to sell and Heckingbottom will likely have been thinking of the likes of Egan, O’Connell and Berge when he reiterated “keeping players together” was key.
Phil Jagielka, Jack Rodwell and Lundstram are out of contract and while there will be questions as to whether names like Stevens, Norwood and Fleck can go again, they have Championship pedigree, like Rhian Brewster and Oli McBurnie, two misfiring strikers still learning. Academy prospects Antwoine Hackford and Iliman Ndiaye have made senior debuts this season and offer a glimpse into the future.
Recently-released accounts show a working profit of £17.5m despite the ravages of coronavirus on many clubs. While wages rose to £78m in the Premier League, the wages to turnover ratio was modest at 54 per cent. The loss of broadcast revenue will be mitigated for now at least by parachute payments and it is understood relegation clauses will cut wages for several players by 50 per cent.
There is no shame in relegation that came a year later than it ought to have, for all the grim circumstances and sense of regret over Wilder’s premature exit. Players who propelled the club to this level should be remembered for doing just that. But as Heckingbottom told media at Molineux: “Clarity is important”.
The real gauge is in the response. The challenge is now to refocus minds, re-energise bodies and, for all that supporters have been used to famine over feast, stave off that most dangerous adversary, apathy, when the game has for too long been behind television screens.
Sheffield United are down but only when a new direction becomes clear can the healing process truly begin.