Sheffield United’s promotion back to the top flight of English football this weekend signalled an end to a 12-year rollercoaster since their last season in the Premier League.
Their journey back to the top table has seen them spend six years in League One, work with ten separate managers, suffer heartbreak in play-off finals as well as League Cup and FA Cup semi-finals, and experience their lowest finish in the Football League pyramid since 1983.
As their fans begin to celebrate the promotion and look ahead to next season, we look back at the Blades’ last taste of the big time.
In at the deep end
After finishing second in the Championship in the 2005/06 season, Sheffield United were promoted to the Premier League after two years in the second division alongside Reading and Watford.
They opened their campaign at Bramall Lane, hosting one of the biggest names in the English game in Liverpool. Refusing to be overawed, the Blades opened the scoring in the second half through eventual top-scorer Rob Hulse before eventually drawing 1-1, with only a Robbie Fowler penalty denying them a winning return to the top flight.
However, this would be lost in the middle of a tough start to the season, with only two points being collected from their first six games, which included games against Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal.
The Blades would eventually pick up their first win of the season at home to Middlesborough in their seventh game, but they would have to wait over a month for their next, when a Danny Webber goal gave them a 1-0 win over Newcastle in early November.
Mid-season – the relegation battle heats up
That result left United just outside of the Premier League’s bottom three, but they were under no illusions they would be fighting at the pointy end of the table all season.
A couple of defeats after the Newcastle victory kept them anchored to the relegation zone, but a run of four unbeaten games leading into the Christmas period, including three wins against relegation rivals Watford, Charlton and Wigan, gave them hope of securing survival.
Their best result of the season, a 1-0 win against Arsenal at Bramall Lane in their last game of 2006, was sadly only small comfort in a run of one win in six games which undid a lot of their good work.
Wins against Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur displayed the frustrating inconsistency of results that was hampering the Blades as they moved into the pivotal late season, as they bookended a damaging loss at Blackburn and were followed by a run on five games without a win.
Down to the wire
As the season moved into the run home, the Blades were faced with the very real possibility of immediate relegation from the top flight.
They went into a six-pointer against relegation rivals West Ham in the relegation zone and staring down the barrel, but goals from Michael Tonge, Phil Jagielka and Jon Stead saw them claim a 3-0 win and breathed fresh life into their escape.
But again, failure to back up these big results was their Achilles heel, with a defeat at Manchester United followed up by crucial dropped points against rivals Charlton. A win over already-doomed Watford and a tame 3-0 defeat to Villa set them up for a do-or-die encounter on the final day of the season against Wigan Athletic.
The Unsworth curse
Wigan’s visit to Bramall Lane saw United three points clear of the Latics, but with a superior goal difference of only one goal – simply put, if Wigan won, the Blades were down.
The home fans’ worst fears were confirmed when Paul Scharner put Wigan in front after 14 minutes. However, Jon Stead struck after 38 minutes to level it up and keep United believing.
With news filtering through that West Ham, the other side in the mixer for the last relegation place, were ahead at Manchester United, the equation was simple – Wigan needed to win, the Blades to avoid defeat.
But before the sides could wrap their head around that fact at half time, a penalty was awarded to Wigan after a handball from Phil Jagielka.
Ex-Sheffield United man David Unsworth, who had left the club to join Wigan just months before, stepped up and put the away side in front. As it stood, Sheffield United knew they were down.
And that was ultimately the way it would prove. As West Ham hung on for a priceless win at Old Trafford, the Blades could not breach the Wigan defence and suffered the cruellest of relegations – on goal difference, with a differential of one goal, to Wigan themselves.
The cruelty of this relegation battle will no doubt live in the fans’ memories as they retake their place at England’s top table in August, and only time will tell whether this piece of the club’s history will haunt or inspire them.