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Sheffield United the best newly-promoted team in Premier League history? Absolutely no chance

PUBLISHED: 12:00 28 July 2020

George Burley's Ipswich Town finished fifth in the top flight in 2000/01. Picture: PA

George Burley's Ipswich Town finished fifth in the top flight in 2000/01. Picture: PA

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Following Sheffield United’s impressive debut Premier League season, ANDY WARREN looks at the comparisons to George Burley’s Ipswich Town class of 2000/01.

Ipswich Town celebrate Marcus Stewart's winner at Anfield in 2000. Picture: PAIpswich Town celebrate Marcus Stewart's winner at Anfield in 2000. Picture: PA

There’s no doubting Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United have been excellent during their top flight debut.

We knew what they were all about, of course, with two of their three centre-backs split wide and marauding forward, causing chaos in the final third. They made the jump from League One to the Premier League that way, winning promotion in just their second Championship season, but they seemed to take their new surroundings by surprise once they were eating at the top table.

Europe seemed entirely possible, but the Blades fell away late, losing their final three games to ultimately finish ninth.

A wonderful achievement from an excellent football team (who Ipswich should now aspire to be), which has led plenty of onlookers to ponder whether they are the best newly-promoted side in the history of the league.

David McGoldrick was a top performer for Sheffield United during their first Premier League season. Picture: PADavid McGoldrick was a top performer for Sheffield United during their first Premier League season. Picture: PA

But better than George Burley’s boys of 2000/01? No chance.

The two teams have plenty in common. Squads including very little prior Premier League experience, largely kept together following promotion, managed by men with their club ingrained in their hearts. Burley won the manager-of-the-year award, with Wilder said to be in the running this time around. Fair enough on both counts.

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You can see similarities in the playing squads, too. Richard Wright was seen as a future England No.1 back then, just as Dean Henderson is now. Mark Venus was as capable with the ball at his feet as any of the much-lauded United centre-backs while Jim Magilton and Matt Holland could control the tempo from midfield just like Oliver Norwood and John Fleck. Those are just four examples – there are plenty more.

George Burley was named manager of the year for his exploits. Picture: PAGeorge Burley was named manager of the year for his exploits. Picture: PA

Both had distinct footballing philosophies and both were expected to be deep in relegation battles following their elevations. Both sides proved those predictions to be wildly inaccurate but, without meaning to play down Wilder’s achievements, surely the Blades get nowhere near the achievement of that wonderful Ipswich Town side?

The argument for Sheffield United centres around football’s financial landscape in 2020 and their ability to beat the odds.

Figures quoted by The Athletic say Ipswich’s 2000/01 wage bill was 36% of the highest in the league (Chelsea), while Sheffield United’s is just 9% of today’s biggest spenders (Manchester City). Town’s was 68% of the Premier League average, United’s just 23%.

So, by those numbers, Sheffield United beat the odds to a bigger extent.

Chris Wilder has done an outstanding job as Sheffield United boss. Picture: PAChris Wilder has done an outstanding job as Sheffield United boss. Picture: PA

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Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to discuss footballing achievements without mentioning money?

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The numbers in Ipswich Town’s favour are even more stark, even more conclusive and, while there’s certainly reason to suggest finance makes it even harder now than it did two decades ago, were attained on the playing field.

Ipswich finished fifth, to Sheffield United’s ninth. They were in Champions League contention on the final day and made it into Europe.

Town won 20 games to the Blades 14. Burley’s men scored 57 goals to Wilder’s side’s 39. No promoted side has bettered Ipswich’s haul in all three of those categories since the top flight became a 20-team league in 1995/96. Both sides only lost 12 games which, again, has not been bettered.

Ipswich also won 22 points against top 10 teams compared to United’s 18, while Town twice beat one of the four sides above them away from home (Leeds and Liverpool), as the Blades failed to win on the road at any of the eight who ultimately finished above them. Town’s season had perfect symmetry with 33 points coming from the first 19 games

Oli McBurnie was United’s leading scorer with six goals, while Marcus Stewart scored 19 alone (and was scandalously overlooked for an England call-up) as Martijn Reuser and Alun Armstrong matched or bettered the Scot’s total.

Hermann Hreidarsson provided one of the iconic Ipswich Town images of 2000/01. Picture: PAHermann Hreidarsson provided one of the iconic Ipswich Town images of 2000/01. Picture: PA

It’s also worth noting Sheffield United spent £65m on transfer fees following for promotion, including £20m each on Sander Berge and McBurnie, while Town’s only notable summer addition was the £4.5m acquisition of Hermann Hreidarsson. Alun Armstrong and Chris Makin did follow later for a combined £1.75m but, even adjusting for inflation, it’s clear the Blades were able to use their new-found financial power more heavily.

Town’s finish of fifth isn’t the best of any promoted side in Premier League history, that award is shared by Newcastle and Nottingham Forest, who managed third in 1994 and 1995. But two years after the latter, the first bumper television deal was signed and the chasm between the second tier and the top flight began to widen.

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That brought about real strength in depth as teams not only chased Premier League glory, but the more and more lucrative Champions League places as well.

Marcus Stewart scored 19 Premier League goals in 2000/01. Picture: PAMarcus Stewart scored 19 Premier League goals in 2000/01. Picture: PA

For my money, Ipswich remains the most impressive of the debut efforts. Will we see a team better fifth again? It’s hard to see it happening. Town’s is certainly the greatest achievement since the Premier League became a 20-team league in 1995.

But why do some look past it? Maybe the fact Ipswich were relegated in their second season taints the achievement in the first. Sheffield United still have that second act to negotiate.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, there’s every chance we’ll be having this same debate next summer now Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United have hit the big time.

See you then.


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