The ‘school’s out’ clash between Southampton and Sheffield United celebrates the purity of football


Do you remember the last day of school before the six-week holidays?

It is usually a sweltering hot July day and you are at school, but you kind of aren’t, if you get what I mean. Yes, you are supposed to be learning and everything is expected to be business as usual, but its just not.

The teachers will be in, as usual. But you sense something different in them. They may have a wider, more regular smile, or a more informal dress code, in altogether different attire to what your adolescent eyes are accustomed to seeing.  Ties are substituted for casual t-shirt’s and heels – you know the ones you hear coming down the hallway two minutes before they step foot in the classroom – are replaced by flats.

The day itself is usually a jolly, relaxed occasion, where even the bad kids spend most of the day actually in the classroom, rather than being told to wait outside. It is the one day of the school year where teachers seem to give you extra leeway and essentially a license to do whatever you want, within reason, of course.

On Sunday, we have a grown-up version of school’s out. Sheffield United cap off a memorable first season back in the Premier League with a trip to St Mary’s, most likely in the sweltering July heat. They face a Southampton side, whom have also had quite the unforgettable campaign of their own.

Both sides head into the game with no doubts lingering of an aftermath repercussion or a final day plot twist. In the unnerving, disturbing world we all currently live in, it is uncommon for a group of individuals to feel the sense of settlement. But Southampton and Sheffield United do.

It is a joyous reward for an arduous 11 month season, where they can enjoy and take great pleasure in the fruits of their labour. This season has been like no other; prolonged, drawn-out and previously on the precipice. It has caused physical pain and mental fatigue, where the strongest pull through and the vulnerable wilt.

It has been a season truncated with trials and tribulations that none of us have never seen before or will likely see again. To reluctantly use the political buzz word, it has been an unprecedented period in all of our lives.

Football clubs have had to adapt in order to survive. Of course, its not been ideal but its need’s must. Southampton and Sheffield United, have both done that at some point of the season, leading to the pair being two of the standout clubs in English football.

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Chris Wilder’s side are perhaps the Premier League’s best ever newcomers. Favourites to go down at the beginning of the campaign last year, the Blades have shown a precious consistency that’s rarely been seen from a newly-promoted team.

Wilder’s get-to-the-point manner and his Yorkshire accent means he is often mistaken for an archetypal meat and veg English manager, whose tactics are rather simplistic. But in fact, they are anything but; it is quirky, distinct, and so patterned with detail, that’s it’s taken the Premier League by complete surprise. In fact, some of the tactical nuances and the regularly witness-able ideologies, wouldn’t look out of place in a Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola team.

Utilising an innovative three at the back system, which sees his outside centre-backs making underlaps and overlaps with full-backs, has been a breathe of fresh air. Its a thrilling, hardly ever-seen-before style of build-up play, ultimately proving complex enough to have continual success throughout the season. Wilder’s Sheffield United collected 29 points in the first half of the season, and 25 so far in the second half, with the lone match against Southampton remaining. They will, more or less, match the points total they had on Boxing Day.

While Sheffield United’s form has been largely consistent and maintained throughout the season, Southampton’s has been polar opposite. Rather, it has shown to be a dramatic tale of two halves, where they sunk to pit of despair and were dragged back from the position of the lowest of the low.

‘That’ defeat to Leicester would have eventually killed most managers off psychologically, even if their head wasn’t on the chopping block immediately. However, Hasenhuttl survived the chastening post-mortem that ensued afterwards. Support was instead provided, through vice-chairman Martin Semmens.

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Since that Halloween October night, it’s been revealed Hasenhuttl offered his resignation to Semmens directly after the heavy defeat, only for Semmens to present assurances to the Austrian that he would put kept on and trust would be strengthened, rather than broken.

In an era of  hasty decisions and fickle loyalty, Semmens’ robustness in keeping faith with Hasenhuttl is extremely uncharacteristic of those who occupy the top jobs at Premier League clubs. Supporters often like to moan about how no managers are afforded time and when things go awry, it’s always seen to be their fault, and never the players.

Therefore, Saints’ actions need to be applauded. They did not press the panic button, nor did they rip away the well-laid out foundations Hasenhuttl was beginning to build.  Now, they are reaping the rewards.  Southampton’s showing of guided faith serves as evidence that the some clubs still have it in them to do the same, and go against the grain of other ruthless, cutthroat club hierarchies. And just maybe, Hasenhuttl’s renaissance that began a month later is a testament to that.

Despite Southampton’s incredibly tumultuous start to the season, they did manage to record a 1-0 victory against Sheffield United last September, which through time, has demonstrated to be an underrated and significant win.

Going to Bramall Lane and coming away with something was something that proved incessantly taxing during the course of the season. The team spirit, the brand of football and a manager who is more than willing to go toe-to-toe with just about anyone, has culminated in a group of hungry individuals, unable to rest of their laurels.

This week, club captain Billy Sharp admitted Chris Wilder has began preparations for the new campaign. “He’s (Wilder) already been on to us about next season and this one’s not even finished. We need to make sure we’re hungry and ready to go again.”

Untypical with newly-promoted sides, Sheffield United and Wilder have had palpable success with their tried and trusted 5-3-2 shape when out of possession, proving conducive even when stepping up in levels. While they are sweepingly expansive in attack, the 36 goals conceded in 37 games suggests a well-rounded side, capable of functioning cohesively with and without the ball.

The manner in which the Yorkshire-outfit have taken to the Premier League should never be underestimated or neglected. In a financially-dominant age, Sheffield United’s resources mean their success should be celebrated in even higher regard.

Their wage bill is estimated to be around nine per cent of Manchester City’s — there’s also a sizeable gap to mid-table sides such as Crystal Palace, West Ham United, Southampton and Watford, who have been collecting Premier League revenue for several years. Moreover, Sheffield United’s wage bill is only around 23 per cent of the current average in the Premier League.

That has led to, by common consent, two glaring candidates for this year’s LMA Manager of the Year Award: Chris Wilder and Jurgen Klopp. But an alternative applicant could just be Ralph Hasenhuttl.

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There is a case to be heard that if Southampton weren’t so dire at home, they may well be in a similar, if not better, position than Sunday’s counterparts. Southampton’s 2-0 win at Bournemouth last weekend upped their total on the road this season to 31 points, a new record for the club in their Premier League history.

To put into context the disparity in home and away form, Saints have recorded the third best record away form away from St Mary’s, only bettered by Manchester City and Liverpool. At home, they are second from bottom in point accrued (18) – only already relegated Norwich have worse.

Whatever the result, the feeling after the game will be a cordial, jovial and a celebration for all what both have had to overcome this season. Loyalty, building in the right way and an innate team spirit is tangible at both clubs. And you hasten a guess, they have certainly needed the latter to be able to ride the peaks and troughs Premier League football can entail.

In their respective managers, whom are the faces and the forefront of their club’s, they can look forward to next season with few regrets. What a position to be in.

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About Author

Football, Boxing and Cricket correspondent from Hampshire, covering southern sport. Editor and Head of Boxing at Prost International. Accreditated EFL & EPL journalist.

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