United's Premier League survival: Stick or Twist?
Updated: Dec 11, 2020
The Blades should keep the faith, but need the ‘Glyn Hodges effect' for survival, says Brendan Moffett
Back in the Autumn of 1975, after a similar start to the current campaign, the United board lost faith in manager Ken Furphy. Expectations for the season had been high after a top six finish in the previous season with the Blades narrowly missing out on Europe. Furphy’s fate was sealed at an emergency board meeting in October 1975 with the Blades rock bottom on three points having played 11, won one, drawn one and lost nine (only two points for a win in those days).
The parallel with the current campaign being a number of good performances with narrow defeats. The board however believed they had backed him in the transfer market, citing a £367,000 spend on players despite the additional financial of building the South Stand.
The reality was that many of the players Furphy had signed were from lower divisions. The Blades had broken their transfer record by paying £100,000 for a third division centre forward (Chris Guthrie) despite being linked with proven top level veteran (Francis Lee) during the summer.
Furphy had also shot himself in the foot in a press interview where he had said he wasn’t "paid to worry about the teams’ performances". After a brief caretaker stint from Cec Coldwell and John Harris, the board eventually announced their chosen successor, ageing Scot Jimmy Sirrell, who had no top-level experience.
Sirrell started to break up the team, bringing in a number of younger players, and tried to inject some creative quality with former European Cup winner and Celtic legend Jimmy Johnstone. Unfortunately, Johnstone’s best days were behind him and the change of manager was disastrous with no win in the next 17 games. Relegation was assured. The rot had set in and within five years the Blades had plummeted to the fourth division.
A long 14 years after this relegation from the top division, the Blades returned to the top flight in 1990 with a totally new playing approach and a revived spirit at the club. There was real momentum following consecutive promotions under Dave Bassett. There were definite parallels with the current squad, a ‘band of brothers’ togetherness and players from lower divisions with the desire to show that they could compete at the top.
The media had already written them off before a ball was kicked and as the season unfolded their opinions seemed justified. The Blades lost 12 of their first 16 games and were rooted to the foot of the table before the first win eventually came against Forest, just three days before Christmas. Due mainly to the miracles that Basset had performed in dragging the Blades up from the third tier, his position was never in question.
There was however acknowledgement that the squad was lacking quality and an evolution of the direct style that had delivered up until that point was needed. The January signing of the mercurial Glyn Hodges was arguably the key to survival as the Blades launched an incredible run in the new year including 7 straight wins.
So, what can we learn from history and apply to our current plight?
The manager, like Bassett, has earned his stripes with successive promotions and last seasons’ remarkable achievement and should not be under any pressure. Wilder is also facing far stiffer competition from squads loaded with the world’s best players, unlike his predecessors.
The current squad does have very obvious limitations though and despite being brilliantly organised and competing in every game, it’s clear that there is a lack of creative spark and the unpredictability to surprise opponents.
The lack of such ingredients is determined by the current wage structure: a playmaker in the Premier League commands a salary of £100,000/week or more, way beyond the Blades current ceiling of circa £30,000.
Where does the club go from here? Stick or twist?
Do we just stick to our guns, retain belief in the system, acknowledge that we can’t compete financially and accept the inevitability of relegation knowing that we will be in good shape for a swift return?
Or do we make an exception to bring in that one special player (realistically on a loan deal) acknowledging the risk to team spirit and togetherness to give us a fighting chance of survival?
If the latter paid off, we would at least be giving it a go and we could then review our operating model at the end of 20/21 when we may have another year of Premier League money to utilise.
It’s a difficult call. The decision is not about the manager, but about the club strategy….