Sheffield United face Chelsea in the Premier League this weekend, which probably won’t be as dramatic as the game between the two in 1994, which turned around in a frantic half hour to send the Blades to relegation and Dave Bassett into despair…
At around 4.14 on May 7, 1994, Sheffield United were cruising.
Dave Bassett’s side went into the final game of the season knowing that they needed a victory to ensure they stayed in the Premier League, but also knowing that a draw would probably do them fine. Glyn Hodges had just put them 2-1 ahead against a pretty mediocre Chelsea side who had bigger things in their mind. The FA Cup final against Manchester United a week later was much more of a priority than a meaningless league fixture which would only determine whether they finished 14th or 15th. In the live league table, the Hodges goal put Sheffield United fifth bottom, three points from safety.
At around 4.45 on May 7, 1994, Sheffield United were relegated.
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The final day of the 1993/94 Premier League season began with six teams in danger of joining Swindon Town in being relegated. The league title had been decided some time before and the two European spots were also sewn up, and in any case these were the days before the top four got into the Champions League and such things weren’t regarded as a tangible achievement. Thus, the bun fight to avoid the drop was the biggest show in town.
The teams in the remaining two relegation spots at the start of the day were Oldham, who had dramatically escaped demotion the previous season, and Everton, with solemn pre-obituaries written for a side who had been in the top flight since 1954 and who had won the title only seven years earlier.
Manchester City were technically in peril but only a fairly implausible series of results would have put them in trouble. That left Southampton, Ipswich Town and Sheffield United, all on 42 points, perched precariously a point above the bottom three, like explorers reaching the end of a fraying rope bridge across a ravine.
Sam Hammam even offered his players a holiday in Las Vegas if they beat Everton.
United had looked like they were sliding towards the abyss in the first few months of 1994. A ten game winless run from the turn of the year left them second-bottom at the end of March, with two of their remaining fixtures against Arsenal and Liverpool. But they somehow smuggled three points away from Anfield and got a creditable 1-1 draw against the Gunners, and after defeat to Aston Villa beat Norwich and Newcastle, and drew with fellow strugglers Oldham in the penultimate fixture.
Down to the last day it went. Away to Chelsea was not quite the task it is now, but Bassett was still looking for favours. ‘Everton were at home to Wimbledon and I was hoping that my old club would do us a favour,’ he wrote in his autobiography. ‘I heard that Sam Hammam was pretty keen to see that happen. He felt that he had been snubbed once by Everton and he wanted to see their demise. He even offered his players a holiday in Las Vegas if they beat Everton.’
It’s worth pausing at this stage and enjoying the notion that the balance of relegation from the top division of English football might have been tipped by some non-specific petty grudge, and the promise of playing roulette at Ceasars Palace. As it turns out, not even that could inspire Wimbledon to do their old boss the favour, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
United went to Stamford Bridge quietly confident, after their run of just one defeat in their previous seven games. Plus there was the form of new recruit Nathan Blake, the club’s belated replacement for Brian Deane, sold to Leeds the previous summer against the wishes of Bassett, who said letting him go was ‘virtually signing our own Premiership death warrant’.
Nevertheless, they took the lead just before the half hour mark when Jostein Flo hooked in a shot from inside the area, sauntered into the break ahead, and with results elsewhere going their way they enjoyed their tea and oranges in the comforting position of seventh bottom.
Chelsea equalised not long after the break through Jakob Kjeldberg, but Glyn Hodges bundled a second home and there we arrive back where we started. Sheffield United were cruising, only Southampton of the other relegation candidates were winning and Wimbledon at that stage were doing their bit by leading at Goodison Park.
Then the walls came tumbling down. Chelsea having one eye on the FA Cup final theoretically worked in United’s favour, but in reality it was perhaps the thing that sunk them. Chelsea striker Mark Stein had spent a spell out injured in the lead up to the game, and was naturally keen to prove his fitness ahead of the trip to Wembley. Unfortunately for the Blades, he did that emphatically.
Stein levelled things up with 15 minutes remaining, a sharp left-footed finish after the Blades defence had briefly abandoned their posts. “We played at hanging on a little bit,” Bassett said. “With 20 minutes to go, then with 15, we were in no real danger.”
At the 90 minute mark, they were still OK. But 30 seconds into injury-time, Dennis Wise crossed from the left, it was flicked on by notorious target man Glenn Hoddle, the Chelsea player-manager on as a substitute, to Stein again. Stein volleyed towards the near-post, Blades keeper Simon Tracey threw out his left boot but could only divert it into the net. “I sympathise with United but I had other things on my mind like Wembley,” said Stein afterwards. “I’m hopeful that those two goals will have done the trick and earned me a place in the final.” Would it be any consolation to United that he did earn his place at Wembley? No, obviously not.
We just sat about waiting for someone to tell us they'd got the other results wrong. Nobody did.
Still, all was well because Wimbledon were off to see Siegfried and Roy in Vegas, right? Initially, that all went to plan: a Dean Holdsworth penalty and a Gary Ablett own-goal put the Dons 2-0 ahead, despite presumably being sleep-deprived after being awoken at 5am that morning to find someone had set their team bus on fire. “Fortunately, as the coach went up in flames, we had just enough time to rescue all our playing gear,” said manager Joe Kinnear.
Graeme Stuart pulled one back from the spot, but tensions rose and rose on Merseyside as they couldn’t find another as the hour mark came and went. Indeed, it took a moment of inspiration to level things up, as Barry Horne won a bobbling ball in midfield and larruped a half-volley into the top corner. Everton still needed one more, and with nine minutes remaining Stuart popped up again and sent a low shot bobbling into the bottom corner. Goodison erupted, and while they didn’t know it yet, sunken Blades hearts were in the post.
Interestingly, the Wimbledon goalkeeper that day was Hans Segers, and this was one of the games mentioned in the match-fixing trial that involved the Dutchman a few years later. In his book, Bassett hints at dark forces behind the result, but Segers was of course acquitted and in any case, he could do little about the first two goals, even if the third was a little soft.
Back at Stamford Bridge, the Blades players trudged off the pitch despondent at their defeat but hopeful that events elsewhere might save them. “We sensed something was wrong when we got back to the dressing-room,” said United captain Brian Gayle, before embarking on what could be the bleakest sentence in football history. “We just sat about waiting for someone to tell us they’d got the other results wrong. Nobody did.”
No help from elsewhere either. They needed at least one of their other rivals to lose, but everyone picked up a point, which in the absence of any from United, kept them in the bottom three on goal difference. Beneath them Oldham, who could only draw with Norwich.
At the final whistle, Bassett was shell-shocked. Sipping tea from a plastic cup, he looked like…well, like a man who had just been unexpectedly relegated by a last minute goal. “Football has kicked me in the cobblers today,” he said, in perhaps the most Dave Bassett remark of all time.
“I’m in the middle of a nightmare. Our destiny was in our own hands and we failed. It’s as simple as that. It’s no good looking for scapegoats. If you play Russian roulette, sometimes you are going to get the bullet. Everyone gave everything they had in this match but maybe we have to look back over the season and ask ourselves if we caused our own problems.
“A bit of you dies when something like this happens. I just feel deadened by it.”
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