Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United are stuck in same spiral that doomed Sunderland | Jonathan Wilson | Football

For Kevin Kyle, the nadir came in his kitchen. The Scottish striker was boiling the water to prepare his baby’s bottle when it kicked out at the pan, soaking his tracksuit bottoms and scalding his scrotum. “When it first happened,” he says, “it was just a shock, but then I got to hospital and they didn’t have the drugs to take the pain away. When something like that happens you start to feel everything’s stacked against you.”

Kyle had only just recovered from a hip injury that had caused him to miss most of the first half of the 2005-06 season. By the time he returned, Sunderland were already as good as relegated. They would go on to break their own record‑low Premier League points tally, taking it from 19 down to 15. Kyle was part of both squads and was delighted when Derby lowered the record by a further four points two seasons later.

“You forget about it for a while, but then you hear a quiz or something,” he says. “Who was the worst team ever in the Premier League? Sunderland, with 15 points, 2005-06. Then you think: ‘Hang on, that was us. I was a part of that.’”

With Sheffield United on one point after 13 games, the lowest at that stage in top-flight history, there is every chance that, come May, Kyle will find one of his two efforts nudged off the podium altogether, with the other demoted to bronze. It’s the 15-point campaign this Sheffield United season has begun to resemble.

The 19-point misery was at least relatively comprehensible. The side Peter Reid had led to promotion in 1999 and then successive seventh-place finishes had come to the end of its cycle and recruitment had been poor. He was sacked at the beginning of October 2002, at which point Sunderland made one of the worst decisions in football history, appointing Howard Wilkinson six years after he had last held a club job.

Kevin Kyle during Sunderland’s 2-1 defeat at Manchester City in March 2006

Kevin Kyle during Sunderland’s 2-1 defeat at Manchester City in March 2006, amid a run of six straight defeats. Photograph: Allstar Picture Library Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Football had changed, Wilkinson hadn’t and with his schoolmasterly manner and the abrasiveness of his assistant, Steve Cotterill, rubbing pretty much everybody up the wrong way, morale collapsed and Sunderland won two more league games that season, none after Christmas.

The second one was harder to explain. There is one major difference between that side and the present Sheffield United: it was Sunderland’s first season up after promotion. They hadn’t proved themselves in the way the Blades did last season, and certainly hadn’t impressed with their tactical imagination and flexibility; this was a Mick McCarthy side, after all.

They weren’t a great side, but there was nothing to suggest they would be record-breakingly awful. “I don’t think we were really that much worse than the teams around us,” says Kyle. “We lost a lot of games, but we never got hammered. We just got stuck in a rut and confidence went. We’d let in a soft goal, then it was tough for us to get back into it and score two.”

That will feel very familiar at Bramall Lane. Nine of United’s 12 league defeats this season have been by a single goal. No side has underperformed their xG – expected goals – quite so significantly, largely because of a failure to convert chances.

Understat’s model has them on 11 points, 10 better off than they are (Brighton, who they face on Sunday lunchtime, are nine under the model, Fulham six, with no other side more than four off). They are still third-bottom of that expected table, but not cast adrift contemplating a place in the posterity of failure.

Things started to go wrong on the opening weekend when they leaked two careless goals in the first 10 minutes against Wolves and lost 2-0. Against Aston Villa the following week, John Egan collected a soft red card after 12 minutes and they then missed a penalty before losing 1-0. That was the last game Jack O’Connell played before having surgery on a persistent knee injury, denying them a central defender whose ability to step forward and create overloads was a huge factor in their success last season.

Sheffield United were never prolific, but they have found goals harder to come by, the new signings haven’t quite gelled and in goal Aaron Ramsdale is not having the sort of season Dean Henderson did in 2019-20. Perhaps there are some classic second-season issues, with opponents working them out and some of the euphoric momentum of being in the Premier League being lost. But this feels more like a series of moments of misfortune leading to a self-perpetuating spiral.

John Egan and other Sheffield United players react after Jamie Vardy put Leicester 2-0 up

John Egan (centre) and other Sheffield United players react after Jamie Vardy put Leicester 2-0 up. Photograph: Nick Potts/Reuters

“None of the little breaks seem to go your way,” Kyle says. “We’d do pretty well in a game, miss a couple of chances and then suddenly the opposition break away and score. And once that happens in the Premier League, it’s very hard to break the cycle. You play a couple of games against teams near the bottom that you know are massive because you have a chance of picking something up, then the next week you’re playing Manchester United or Liverpool. There’s no respite.”

Defeats breed doubts. Last Sunday, Sheffield United were dreadful in the first half, the defensive line pushing high but with no pressure on the ball, allowing Southampton’s defenders to wander forward almost at will, picking passes for Che Adams and Danny Ings to run on to. They were lucky to be only 1-0 down at half-time. They improved in the second half but the damage had been done and they ended up losing 3-0, their heaviest defeat of the season.

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Unless there is a sudden jolt very soon, it’s hard to see how they can survive. Sacking Chris Wilder would seem pointless, given any new manager risks Jan Siewert syndrome, overseeing an inevitable relegation and burning any potential messianic capital as he does so. It’s not as though anybody thinks this is Wilder’s fault – and who really is better qualified than him to rally the side next season?

Any Sheffield United fan or player thinking this can’t get any worse, meanwhile, should probably keep an eye out for babies and pans of boiling water.

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