To sell one great striker could be seen as a mistake, to sell two on the same day is downright lunacy. As bad decisions go, this has got to be up there with the very worst. Sheffield United fan, former work colleague and good friend of yours truly Martin Williams tells of the worst decision Sheffield United ever made.
Since seeing the ‘Worst Decision Ever Made’ series I’ve been racking my brains as to what I feel the worst decision Sheffield United have ever made. We’ve had numerous poor board decisions, managerial appointments and player sales to cast my mind over during the 29 years of life in which I’ve been a Blade. However I finally settled on a short period of time during the 1997/98 season that began with one devastating day in January where the club at board level displayed a complete lack of ambition to push the club forward and ultimately set the trend for years to follow.
Mid-January 1998, United were sitting in a play-off place in Division One (Championship as now) just 3 points off an automatic place. A young enthusiastic manager in Nigel Spackman had the Blades playing good attacking football. A realistic push to return to the Premier League looked in place having been beaten in the Play-Off Final the season before.
On the 16th January the ‘worst decision ever made’ by my club happened. Both Brian Deane and Jan Aage Fjortoft were sold on the same day. The main focal point of the side were departing within hours of each other. Deane to Benfica and Fjortoft to Barnsley who were fighting their relegation battle in the Premiership at the time. The decision seemingly left United looking short on fire-power. Petr Katchouro spent much of the season injured and made just 16 appearances while Marcelo had barely come close to commanding a run in the side. In addition to these two the other strikers at the club were the admirably hard working Gareth Taylor and Dean Saunders. United managed to win their next game against Wolves but a downturn in results soon followed.
Despite beating Wolves straight after both sales the decision had shook me, ambitions of promotion had been sacrificed in an attempt to balance the books. It set the tone of the selling club mentality that was set within the cubs boardroom. Six weeks later, another of the clubs key players departed when Don Hutchison was sold to Everton. Three integral parts of the side had been sold in a time where the club were fighting for promotion whilst also in the middle of a run to the FA Cup Semi-Final. The squad was being torn to pieces. I have never been and never will be a person to condone irrational spending – however this appeared far more than simply balancing books, yes we had a few high earners but we completely jeopardised hopes of earning the biggest pay day of promotion to the top flight.
Shortly after the Hutchison sale, Spackman had seen enough and left the club citing reasons that he had “grown frustrated at the clubs policy of putting balance sheets before team sheets.” It had been rumoured that during the Deane and Fjortoft sales that Spackman had been unaware the deals were in place. The first he had heard of the decision was when coach Willie Donachie phoned Spackman to question the reasons why both hadn’t been present in training that morning. With United preparing for a cup Quarter Final Spackman had made the offer to stay on past the cup game in order to help the side prepare, however the board never responded and Spackman left.
United successfully overcame Coventry in a replay at Bramall Lane to set up an FA Cup semi-final with Newcastle under temporary manager Steve Thompson. The continued cup run merely papered over cracks which had appeared within the club. The board had well and truly won a battle which set in over the next few years. After the Wolves game immediately after the departure of Deane and Fjortoft, United managed to win 6 league games from the remaining 19, dropping firmly away from the top 2 and managing to cling on to 6th place by the skin of their teeth having lost the final 2 league games against Crewe and Stockport respectively. Birmingham finishing a place behind United on level points and with a better goal difference, if I remember rightly the ruling at the time was on goals scored rather than difference. A play off Semi-Final with Sunderland never really offered hope to me despite winning the home leg 2-1, and we were soundly beaten 2-0 away from home.
The rot set in the day the club sold Deane and Fjortoft. That season alone it cost us both our chances of promotion and our manager at the time. Longer term, the heavy weighting the board had damaged the club for seasons to come. Steve Bruce took charge the following season and lasted just a season, finishing 8th but leaving in the summer again giving financial reasons claiming turmoil in the board and a shortage of funds for transfers. Adrian Heath then replaced Bruce where halfway through the season United were firm favourites for relegation. In 2 short years Sheffield United had gone from striving from promotion to a selling club battling relegation. Neil Warnock replaced Heath mid-season and steered the club to safety but damage had been done which took many years to rectify. The long term ramifications of such short sightedness and immediate greed made this my choice for Sheffield United’s worst decision ever made.
Make sure you follow Martin on twitter @Mar10Blades