League One

The Wilder Revival at Sheffield United

20th August 2016. Former giant Sheffield United sit bottom of the League One table with one point from their opening four games. The club are facing financial difficulties, and new manager Chris Wilder struggling the future looked bleak. Even the most optimistic Blades fan would have suggested three years later they would be back in Premier League for the first time in 12 years.

Wilder is a lifelong fan and had two separate spells there, before taking charge in May 2016. Wilder has developed in the lower ranks, with a Conference final win with Oxford United in 2010 and a League Two title with Northampton Town in 2015-16. At the time of his arrival Wilder was a rising star in the Football League, but was walking into a tough job.

Despite investment from Saudi Prince Abdullah Al Saud in 2013 the club was in a difficult financial position. Wilder relied mostly on free transfers, and balanced the books by selling Aaron Ramsdale to Bournemouth, Dominic Calvert-Lewin to Everton and Che Adams to Birmingham for a combined £4.5m.

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Wilder being presented in May 2016, along side chairman Kevin McCabe and assistant Alan Knill. Photo: Sport Image/Sheffield Star.

A new manager and a large squad overhaul helps explain the poor start, but from here the team went on a tear. With club captain and boyhood fan Billy Sharp banging in 30 goals, enough to be the leagues top scorer, the team lost only three of their remaining 42 games. They romped to the title with 100 points, 14 more than second placed Bolton.

Wilder won plaudits for his teams playing style, and a testament to his coaching is that the spine of his League One team remains in the Premier League. Defender Jack O’Connell, midfielders John Fleck and Chris Basham along with target man Sharp were all regulars in the third tier.

The following season saw Wilder add full backs George Baldock and Enda Stevens, both of whom were signed from lower league clubs and have earned plaudits in the Premier League this season. The full backs are a vital part of Wilder’s attacking style of play, something other Premier League opponents have struggled to handle.

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Wilder celebrating League One promotion with star striker Billy Sharp. Both are life long fans of the club and both have already cemented legend status. Photo: Press Association.

Tenth in the Championship in their debut season is very tough to do, especially as their biggest listed transfer was midfielder Lee Evans from Wolves for £750 000 pounds in January. The team was on the right track, with the majority of its current team already in place.

The club boosted its transfer funds with the sale of midfielder David Brooks to Bournemouth for £11.5m. This allowed them to break their transfer record to sign defender John Egan from Brentford for £4.05m, along with Oliver Norwood in January from Brighton for £2.4m. Along with David McGoldrick on a free, all three of which are now Premier League regulars.

Two losses wasn’t the start they wanted, but they were consistently brilliant from here on out. From early September they were never outside the play-off places, with a late surge to overcome a faltering Leeds to secure the second automatic promotion place. Just three short years after joining them, Wilder had led them back to the Premier League.

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Sheffield United players celebrating Lys Mousset’s goal in a 1-0 win over Arsenal. The club are the antithesis of the North London club and have earned plenty of plaudits this season. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images. 

Many fans and pundits questioned whether Sheffield United’s style of play would translate to the Premier League, as they tipped them for relegation. This is despite enhancing the squad with the signings of striker Lys Mousset for £10m and midfielder Oli McBurnie for £20m from Bournemouth and Swansea respectively.

In what has been so far an unusual Premier League season, absolutely nobody would have predicted Sheffield United to shock the world and be sitting in fifth after 26 games, only two points away from the Champions League. The team have by far the smallest wage budget, but they play with a desire and resilience unlike many other teams.

They have rescued points from losing positions ten times already this season, showing the fight that fans love from their team. The club have just smashed their transfer record to sign Sander Berge from Genk for £22m, as the club continues to progress. It cannot be stressed enough how impressive their achievements have been this season, with the stats showing that the team with the smallest wage budget has been relegated 15 times from 24 in the Premier League.

The team have earned plaudits for their attacking style, and were it not for a historic Liverpool season Wilder would be the favourite for manager of the year. Nobody saw the rise of this historic club, so future expectations are hard to predict. With Wilder in charge this club has all of the right ingredients to create their own fairy tale, much like Bournemouth have over the past decade. The future looks very bright for the red half of Sheffield.

Bristol Rovers On Upward Trend

Two years ago Bristol Rovers were staring at the abyss, as they were unceremoniously dumped out of the English football league, after 94 uninterrupted years. For the first time in club history they would be a non-league side, facing huge turmoil going into their debut season in the Vanarama Conference.

Fast forward to the present day and the future could not possibly look more different for the well supported West Country club. After a dramatic injury time winner from left back Lee Brown, the club known as the Gas will be plying their trade in League One next season. Their victory and dropped points from Accrington Stanley ensured Rovers a nail biting promotion thanks to a marginally better goal difference.

Rovers have gone from facing the likes of Dover and Braintree to now facing the likes of Bolton Wanderers and Sheffield United within two very short years. The club has changed dramatically in this time period, with a complete overhaul of the squad and whole scale changes in other key positions.

Manager Darrell Clarke was handed the management job with only seven games to go in the fateful relegation season, coming into a situation whereby it was almost impossible for him to stave off relegation. He looked to have completed a great escape going into the final day, only needing a solitary point at home to secure safety.

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Manager Darrell Clarke being comforted by a supporter after the clubs final day relegation in 2014. Photo copyright Getty Images.

The game will forever be etched in the memory of the supporters, who remember a hugely disappointing 1-0 defeat which sealed the club’s drop into the fifth tier of the football pyramid. Widespread change in the squad produced the necessary results after a slow start to the season, as the club found itself steadily rising up the league table as the season wore on.

After narrowly avoiding toppling Barnet as champions on the final day of the season, Rovers were forced to go through the play-off system if they wanted promotion. Local rivals Forest Green Rovers were brushed aside, as the club found itself finishing the season they way it had started, with a stalemate draw against Grimsby.

The national stadium of Wembley became the theatre for the over 30 000 Rovers fans as they narrowly won out 5-4 in the deciding penalty shoot out. The celebrations lasted long into the night, as the club found themselves back in the football league at the first time of asking, becoming the first club in over a decade to achieve this.

With a few summer additions, Rovers embarked on their League Two season, one that would prove to be as equally dramatic as their previous campaign. Good results ensured they were consistently in the play-off picture, edging slowly closer to the hallowed automatic promotion places. A draw away to Stevenage looked to have dented Rovers ambitions of a top three place, but going into the final game of the season on Saturday everyone at the club was dreaming of the unlikely.

Rovers needed to win with either Oxford or Accrington Stanley dropping points to go up, something that looked even less likely within the first ten minutes as already relegated visitors Dagenham & Redbridge produced a shock goal to silence the crowd and take the lead. The response from the home side was swift, but the vital second goal proved much harder to come by.

Despite a seemingly endless barrage of Rovers shots on target, they could not find the opening they needed. Entering stoppage time, Rovers looked destined for the lottery of the play-offs, that was until the second minute of extra time. League Two top scorer Matty Taylor saw his shot bounce off the post from close range for the second time, but before he had a moment to feel disappointed he would of seen the ball rolling straight to defender Lee Brown.

Staring at an empty goal net he tapped the ball home for the pivotal goal they needed. The final minutes were an agonising wait to see how the Accrington Stanley game would finish.  A similar miracle would not be repeated further north, leaving Rovers fans and player free to begin their delirious celebrations. Soon videos emerged of fans swamping the Memorial Stadium pitch, Rovers owner Wael Al-Qadi being carried on the shoulders by the jubilant supporters towards the local pubs. Traffic found itself being redirected as thousands of fans took over the majority of Gloucester Road close to the stadium.

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The Rovers players celebrate with fans on the pitch after securing a last gasp automatic promotion place into League One. Photo copyright Press Association.

The scenes on Saturday were as far away from what had occurred in the previous five years, with the credit for the revival mostly resting on Clarke and the squad he has assembled. Everyone involved has bought into the methods Clarke uses, and will now surely be garnering attention from further afield thanks to successive promotion seasons.

Things have been improving off the pitch also, with the club recently being bought by the Al-Qadi family, owners of the Arab Jordan Investment bank. With secure financial backing behind the team for the first time in a long while, the clubs improved finances and on field play have renewed hopes the club can build a modern stadium with the potential to move the club into the future.

From here it’s not known what will happen in the coming summer, but surely the aim will be to first maintain and then bring in some extra players to help for the rigours of the third tier of English football.

One certainty around the club right now is the fact for once the club has some positive momentum and is going forward, something that seemed impossible only several years ago. That is a testament to a remarkable achievement everyone at the football club has done in recent years, to the point now that some may argue being relegated was one of the best things to happen to the club in recent memory. Without it, it’s unlikely the club would of went through the shake up needed to get to it’s current position.

Any Bristol Rovers fans reading this article? What are your thoughts on the clubs recent promotion and ascendency in the past two years? Feel free to comment below and let me know your thoughts. Finally I want to say a huge thank you for reading and you can find me on Twitter @brfcjordan95.