Sheffield United's Enda Stevens and George Baldock and Arsenal's Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny. Picture: REUTERS/RUI VIEIRA
Sheffield United's Enda Stevens and George Baldock and Arsenal's Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny. Picture: REUTERS/RUI VIEIRA

London — Sheffield United’s fate will be sealed on Saturday if they lose at Wolverhampton Wanderers and Newcastle United avoid defeat against West Ham United, though in reality relegation looked a certainty before Christmas.

So-called “second season syndrome” has claimed several clubs in the past, but Sheffield United’s fall from grace has been both spectacular and surprising in equal measure. In their first season back in the Premier League since 2007 they performed admirably under manager Chris Wilder who had taken over his boyhood club in 2016 when they were languishing in the third-tier League One.

A team low on household names but high on enterprise finished ninth with 54 points having at one stage looked capable of bringing European football to Bramall Lane.

Yet this campaign, with an almost identical team minus keeper Dean Henderson, who went back to Manchester United after spending two seasons on loan, plus a few additions such as Chelsea loanee Ethan Ampadu, Liverpool forward Rhian Brewster and Scotland international Oliver Burke, they have hit rock bottom.

They lost their first four games and managed two points from their first 17 games, earning a first win on January 12. It was the worst start in English top-flight history and Derby County’s record low haul of 11 points in 2007/2008 looked under threat.

No-one, least of all Wilder, could properly explain the slump. While Derby were awful, Sheffield United were competitive and 11 of their first 15 defeats were by a single-goal. Three wins in five games in January and February, including a 2-1 win at Manchester United, offered a glint of hope and a public show of support from Saudi owner Prince Abdullah who compared their escape bid to a Hollywood movie.

The losses resumed though and Wilder was sacked in March, the spirit disappearing with him in a 5-0 defeat by Leicester City. If they are relegated this weekend it would emulate Derby County and Huddersfield Town who were also relegated after 32 games — the Premier League record.

Huddersfield were also victims of second-season syndrome when they finished bottom in 2019 after defying the odds to survive their first season back in the top flight.

Reading impressed for a season in 2006-07 but were relegated the following season while Ipswich Town are another prime example having finished fifth on their return to the Premier League in 2000-01, before being relegated a year later.

Newcastle’s hopes of avoiding joining Sheffield in the Championship next season look rosier after taking four points from their last two games and Steve Bruce’s side have the chance to move nine points clear of third-from-bottom Fulham when they host West Ham on Saturday. Fulham face a “must win” game at Arsenal on Sunday.

West Ham are well-used to relegation battles, but this season their sights are set on a top-four finish. With seven games remaining they are in fourth spot with 55 points, ahead of Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur in the race to qualify for the Champions League.

With Leicester City in FA Cup semifinal action this weekend, victory would move West Ham into third spot and fans might be forgiven for dreaming of the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich visiting the London Stadium.

Manchester United look assured of a top-four finish and should they beat Burnley on Sunday they would cut leaders Manchester City’s gap to a still substantial eight points.

Seventh-placed Tottenham (49 points) travel to eighth-placed Everton (48) on Friday when defeat would all but end their top-four hopes, while sixth-placed Liverpool will attempt to lift the gloom of their Champions League exit to Real Madrid when they take on a buoyant Leeds United side on Monday.

Reuters

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