Season of misery almost over for Sheffield United

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.

Sheffield United has hit rock bottom this season and could be relegated this weekend.   -  Pool via Reuters

Sheffield United's fate will be sealed on Saturday if it loses at Wolverhampton Wanderers and Newcastle United avoids defeat against West Ham United, although 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 its first season back in the Premier League since 2007 it performed admirably under manager Chris Wilder who had taken over his boyhood club in 2016 when it was 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, it has hit rock bottom.

It lost its first four games and managed two points from its 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 2007-08 looked under threat.

No one, least of all Wilder, could properly explain the slump. While Derby was awful, Sheffield United was competitive and 11 of its 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 its 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 it is relegated this weekend it would emulate Derby County and Huddersfield Town who were also relegated after 32 games -- the Premier League record.

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

Reading impressed for a season in 2006-07 but was relegated the following season while Ipswich Town is another prime example having finished a fifth on its 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 its last two games and Steve Bruce's side have the chance to move nine points clear of third-from-bottom Fulham when it hosts West Ham on Saturday.

Fulham faces a "must win" game at Arsenal on Sunday.

West Ham United is well-used to relegation battles, but this season its sights are set on a top-four finish.

With seven games remaining it is 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 it 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 looks assured of a top-four finish and should it beat Burnley on Sunday it would cut leader Manchester City's gap to a still substantial eight points.

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

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