Progress in the FA Cup apart, when Norwich City travel to Bramall Lane on Saturday the conversation among both sets of supporters will share a common theme. How come a club that won the Championship by five points last season are bottom of the Premier League, while the side that finished runners-up lord it over them, 19 points better off and, given that Sheffield United have a game in hand on most around them, still hopeful of reaching Europe?
The obvious answer is money. The Blades broke their transfer record four times between gaining promotion and playing their first fixture back in the top flight, while the Canaries spent next to nothing. It would appear you get what you pay for in football, though that is by no means the whole story. Even though the only Premier League club in Yorkshire dominated the local headlines over the summer, spending money while rivals such as Leeds, Wednesday and Huddersfield kept their powder dry, the extent of the outlay only came to a shade over £40m.
Admittedly that is extravagant investment compared with the £4m or so Norwich spent, though it is nothing remarkable by prevailing Premier League standards. Norwich seem to be attempting to follow the Burnley model of gaining a foothold in the top division anyway. It might not be possible to put down permanent roots in a single season, so it is not necessarily a good idea to go out on a financial limb the minute promotion is achieved. Relegation need not be calamitous as long as you can still live within your means, especially if you are able to retain the manager and keep the same core of players together.
Although very few clubs other than Burnley spent as little as Norwich last summer – although perhaps significantly one of them was Liverpool – Sheffield United’s £40m outlay did not make them the division’s biggest splashers of cash. Far from it; many bigger clubs paid out more than twice as much and United were not even the most conspicuous spenders among the three promoted clubs.
Aston Villa, who came up through the play-offs, immediately set about restructuring their entire side, keeping Jack Grealish but bringing in virtually a fresh set of players to play alongside him at a cost variously estimated at between £110m and £140m. But Villa’s reward for keeping pace with Manchester City and Manchester United in the transfer market is currently a place in the bottom three. Villa too have a game in hand on immediate rivals as a result of playing in the Carabao Cup final, but even if they win it they are likely to be worried about survival for the rest of the season.
Some of their performances have been impressive, others much less so, and it was interesting that Tyrone Mings suggested last week that trying to bed in so many players at the same time might be a clue to their inconsistency. Villa have unquestionably been unlucky with injuries to key players such as Wesley and Tom Heaton, but the point Mings was making was that many of the new intake are new to the Premier League as well, at least as regular performers. “Half a dozen or more of us are learning on the job,” the defender said. “We have to learn quickly.”
Norwich have the same problem. Their players may be familiar with each other but most are new to the Premier League, and though they managed to beat Manchester City back in September they have found the overall standard in the top flight a challenge most weeks.
Sheffield United, on the other hand, are thriving, despite bringing in a clutch of players in summer and a couple more in January. They have reached the traditionally significant total of 40 points, and though Europe may prove a stretch, both in terms of finishing high enough in the table and buying more players to bulk out the squad if necessary, they are definitely not going to be relegated.
Credit must go to Chris Wilder for his acuity in the transfer market, therefore, for apart from picking up Phil Jagielka on a free United did not go for established Premier League names or prominent overseas talent. Their team even now does not contain many players with vast Premier League experience, though you would never know that from watching them.
They broke their transfer record again in January to bring in the Norwegian midfielder Sander Berge from Genk, though that was in the knowledge they had made a solid start in their new division. They have done so without plunging themselves into unmanageable debt too, for Wilder is proud of spending just the money their rise in status allows. Perfectly appropriately given the club nickname and the industry for which Sheffield is famous, the Blades have proved themselves steely competitors. Not naive or soft-centred, but sharp and resilient from day one.
Very few newly promoted teams in recent years have managed to find the magic formula quite as quickly, and Norwich’s and Aston Villa’s divergent paths but similar experiences would suggest Sheffield United are the exception rather than the rule.