As Bad As Things Got: Sheffield United, 2nd May 1981

by | May 29, 2021

It would be understandable if younger Sheffield United supporters might feel as though the last nine months has been about as bad as things could get for this club. Others may look back a little further to a time when the club appeared stranded in League One and unable to even get near the promotion that the club expected. These haven’t been good times, for United’s supporters, but then again, supporting this club has long been a little bit of a rollercoaster. For an older generation of Blade, though, there was another point when things got much, much worse.

Bramall Lane hosted its last Yorkshire county cricket match on the 7th August 1973. It had been clear for years that Sheffield United, who’d spent most of the last five decades councing between the top two divisions, would only truly be able to sustain top flight football with a four-sided ground. Bramall Lane had been three-sided to this point, in order to accommodate the more circular cricket pitch. It was one of the Football League’s curiosities, and it wasn’t the only one, either. Northampton Town similarly shared their County Ground with the county cricket club.

Following promotion to the First Division in 1971, though, the directors of Sheffield United took the decision to end their ground-share with the county cricket club. It was a curious decision, considering that the club’s directors had taken a poll of its 450 shareholders on the matter during the previous winter which found that a majority were in favour of cricket staying. The board pressed on regardless, though. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, “eviction” (it’s hardly as though Yorkshire CCC didn’t have a number of other ‘home’ venues), but it was poignant, in its own right. The ending of an association that went back longer than United had been in existence, which stretched back to before association football had even been codified.

By the time the all-new South Stand opened at Bramall Lane in August 1975, the club had reason to believe that that success could be just around the corner. Sheffield United had finished the 1974/75 season in 6th place in the First Division, their highest league position in in thirteen years, which in turned their joint-highest league position in almost six decades. They finished just a point short of a place in the following season’s UEFA Cup.

Something, however, started to go disastrously wrong on the pitch, the following season. By the end of the first weekend of October 1975, United had taken just three points from their first ten games of the season, and manager Ken Furphy paid for this calamitous start to the season with his job. His replacement was Jimmy Sirrel, formerly of Notts County, but Sirrel couldn’t halt the slide either. Sheffield United finished the 1975/76 season at the bottom of the First Division, eleven points from safety, under two points for a win. They had won just six out of forty-two league matches. They’d scored the least goals in the division and conceded the most. They amassed just 22 points.

Sirrel left the club in September 1977. They’d finished the 1976/77 season in 11th place in the Second Division, a reasonable, stable enough finish, but had started weakly again. He returned to Meadow Lane and turned around the fortunes of a Notts County team that had endured a similar start to United, and turned their fortunes around. First team coach Cec Coldwell stabilised the team, winning nine and drawing five of his twenty matches in charge of the team, but he didn’t end up with the job on a full-time basis. The job eventually went to Harry Haslam, who’d taken Luton Town into the First Division three years earlier. United ended the 1977/78 season in 12th place in the Second Division.

In the summer of 1978, the eyes of the world switched to Argentina for the World Cup finals, and the Sheffield United directors were confident that there was talent that could be unearthed and brought to England relatively inexpensively. United had baulked at the £750,000 required to sign Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa – that honour went to Tottenham Hotspur – but they did believe they’d agreed terms with Argentinos Juniors over an impressive 17 year old that Haslam had seen by chance.

With the deal apparently agreed, though, corrupt officials stepped in, demanding that United pay the same amount of money as the transfer fee again to them. The club wasn’t convinced that the doubled amount was justifiable for a 17 year old who’d only been playing for a couple of years but was largely untested outside of Argentina, and they were also uncomfortable at getting involved with this sort of corrupt behaviour in the first place. They turned the deal, which would have taken one Diego Maradona to Bramall Lane) down, and signed Alex Sabella for £160,000 instead. Sabella was a success and was sold to Leeds United for £400,000 a couple of years later. But he wasn’t Diego Maradona.

And Sheffield United certainly could have done with Maradona the following season. It was tight in the bottom half of the Second Division table throughout the 1978/79 season (by the end of the season just eight extra points would have seen United finish in 7th place in the table), but they never really got going. They started their season pretty well, winning at Leicester and knocking Liverpool out of the League Cup, but a run of just two wins from 21 league matches between the end of October and the middle of March saw them plummet towards the relegation places at the foot of the table, while they were knocked out of the FA Cup after a replay by Fourth Division Aldershot.

By the spring, United needed a run of wins in order to keep their heads above water, but they could only manage one from their final seven matches of the season and, with everybody else around them having played fewer games than them after a winter that had been heavily disrupted by the worst winter in many years, defeat at Cambridge United in their penultimate match of the season effectively relegated the club to the Third Division for the first time in their history. A 2-2 draw against Leicester City on the final day confirmed the mathematics of it all.

In getting relegated again United were joining Sheffield Wednesday in the third tier, all of which teed up the first Steel City Derby since 1971. Wednesday had endured a rougher decade than United, having been relegated into the Third Division in 1975, and by Christmas it was clear that these two matches would be critical, not only in terms of local pride but also in terms of the division’s promotion race. United had started the season well and travelled to Hillsborough on Boxing Day top of the table, with Wednesday in 6th place, and the scale of the match could be seen in fact that, despite being an all-ticket match on a day when there were no buses running locally, a division record crowd of 49,309 turned out to watch.

The match has gone down as one of the most infamous in the history of Sheffield football. As United froze under the glare of such a huge crowd Wednesday ran riot, winning the match 4-0, a result which seemed to have huge ramifications for both clubs. Buoyed by this win, Wednesday shortly afterwards embarked on a sixteen match unbeaten run that would see them promoted back to the Second Division come the end of the season. United, meanwhile, saw their form collapse. They won just three of their ast twenty league matches of the season and finished in 13th place in the table.

Again, though, there were points throughout the early stages of the 1980/81 season when it looked as though Sheffield United seemed set fair. They briefly led the table after a run of five wins from seven matches at the start, and were still in touch with the promotion places by the end of the year. Changes were coming, though. Harry Haslam’s health had been suffering, and in the middle of January he was moved upstairs into a less stressful position after protests during a home match against Gillingham.

His replacement presumably seemed like a good idea at the time. Martin Peters playing career had spanned almost twenty years for three club and almost 900 matches when he joined Sheffield United as a player-coach in the summer of 1980, and he was moved straight into the manager’s seat upon Haslam’s removal. The team was in 12th place in the table upon his appointment, but members of the 1966 World Cup winning team have a pretty poor record as managers, and Peters turned out to be no exception. Under his management, United won just three out of his first fifteen matches and tumbled towards the relegation places.

Going into the last week of the season, Sheffield United again needed a result in order to avoid relegation. They went into the week in 17th place in the table, with seven clubs within two points of the last relegation place. On the last Saturday of the season they had a home match against Walsall, who were in 21st place. A win or a draw would guarantee their survival, and even if they did lose they would survive if Swindon Town, who were in 20th place, failed to pick up any points from their last two matches. A cold chill blew through Bramall Lane when, two days prior to United’s last game, Swindon beat Millwall by a goal to nil.

Crowds had fallen by almost a quarter over the course of the 1980/81 season, but a crowd of 16,000 still turned out at Bramall Lane for the Walsall shoot-out. It was, by all accounts, a terrible match, riddled with errors and remaining goalless until its closing stages. But with five minutes the Walsall player-manager Alan Buckley was fouled inside the penalty area, allowing the appropriately named Don Penn to score a priceless oal for the visitors.

It looked for all the world as though that was that, but a couple of minutes later came a lifeline, when Walsall substitute John Horne handled the ball, giving United a penalty kick of their own. What happened next has entered into Sheffield United folklore. Regular penalty taker John Kenworthy had been dropped by Peters, so Don Givens stepped up to take it, a tame shot – it’s been said that it might have been the worst penalty kick ever taken at Bramall Lane – that was comfortably saved by the Walsall goalkeeper Ron Green.

One minute later, the final wistle blew, and Sheffield United were down, not that anybody knew this for sure amid the bedlam that followed the missed penalty. Angry supporters lashed out, at the police, at the ground itself, and at the celebrating Walsall supporters. Rumours circulated that goals elsewhere had ensured the team’s survival, but these turned out to be false. Sheffield United, who five years earlier had been playing First Division football, would be starting the 1981/82 season playing Fourth Division football, and to make matters even worse they contrived to find a way to relegated with a positive goal difference. Chairman John Hassall resigned a few days later alongside Harry Haslam, and Martin Peters followed them later in the month. He never managed again, his entire career as a manager having lasted just 24 games.

Sheffield United’s stay in the Fourth Division turned out to be brief, though. They appointed Ian Porterfield from Hull City to replace Martin Peters, and Porterfield brought Keith Edwards, a striker who’d played for United from 1975 to 1978, with him. With significant investment in the team, United marked the introduction of three points for a win by running up a record 92 of them as they won the Fourth Division title by five points from Bradford City and Wigan Athletic. By 1984 they were back in the Second Division, and they returned to the First Division in 1990, a promotion which coincided with Wednesday being relegated from the First Division on goal difference.

Things might have been a lot worse. The late 1970s brought an acceleration in the decline of the game in this country, and those that struggled on the pitch were doing so at a bad time. Sheffield United’s average attendance for the 1975/76 season had been 23,549. By 1980/81 this had almost halved, to 12,772, and it is a sign of the state of the game at the time that, despite two promotions, they had fallen to below 11,000 by 1986.

Ultimately, though, the club’s decline throughout the second half of the 1970s was a combination of bad luck and bad management. Two of the three relegations that the club endured were by the slenderest of margins, and who can say how things might have been different for the club had they signed Diego Maradona – arguably the game’s greatest ever player – in 1978, had Harry Haslam’s health not deteriorated so much during the first half of the 1980/81 season, or had the club not made the decision to replace Haslam with someone who had almost twenty years experience as a player, but none as a manager. Sheffield United have certainly had their ups and downs since, but for those old enough to remember it, nothing was worse than the 2nd May 1981.