If there’s a side in the Championship for Sheffield United to look at from afar with concern, it’s Stoke City.
Like so many teams who come down from the Premier League, Stoke were expected to walk the division after a decade in the top-flight and a squad many thought would cruise the second tier. At the time, the Potters appointed Gary Rowett, and backed the former Derby coach to the tune of around £50m worth of new players.
But now, nearly four years down the line, Stoke are still in the Championship. They’re on their third manager in that time, with Michael O’Neill given the task of steadying, and eventually resurrecting, what was a sinking ship. To his credit, O’Neill does have the Potters in 4th this year.
In the three seasons since Stoke came down, they’ve yet to finish in the top half of the table. 16th, 15th, and 14th place finishes are hardly something to shout home about for a club that’s had 10 years’ worth of Premier League cash.
If Sheffield United can learn anything, it’s that getting back to the ‘promised land’ is not always as easy as it seems. This weekend’s meeting, then, should serve as a warning to the current Blades hierarchy.
Rot Setting In
Of course, not everything is the same when you look at the Potters and the Blades following relegation. But there are some similarities, especially in terms of squad personnel.
Stoke, at the time, boasted players many assumed would be far too good for the Championship. Players who, in the views of some, would help the Potters fly towards an immediate return.
The likes of Jack Butland, Joe Allen, Ryan Shawcross, Tom Ince, and James McClean, all players proven at this level and beyond in some cases. Some of those players are full internationals. In United’s squad, the likes of Enda Stevens, John Egan, John Fleck, Oli McBurnie, and now Robin Olsen, are all in that boat.
Stoke’s issue, much like there’s been hints of at United, is that breaking the losing habit as a club is tough. Stoke won just seven games the season they went down. Since then, they’ve lost more than they’ve won in each of their three full Championship seasons, with a negative goal difference in all.
Sometimes, it seems that breaking that losing mindset is the toughest nut of all to crack.
While comparisons can be made with United and Stoke and the danger does exist of following their lead, there are differences.
First, United haven’t spent the fortunes Stoke did since coming down. Yes, we’ve sanctioned loans for good players on good money. But there’s been no big spending.
Secondly, United haven’t lost their best players. City lost the likes of Shaqiri, Ndiaye, and Choupo-Moting when they came down. Barring Aaron Ramsdale, the Blades have kept their squad intact.
Finally, United went for a proven manager in Slavisa Jokanovic. Yes, Rowett was a solid enough choice. But the Blades boss has won promotion twice from this division. He’s a winner, and history suggests he’ll get it right.
This Sheffield United side has a long way to go in terms of becoming a serious promotion contender. But it still has some way to go before becoming a full-blown Stoke City part-deux.
But the warning signs are there. It’s imperative, then, that Sheffield United beat Stoke this Saturday and make a statement.