In the modern era, Aston Villa v Sheffield United hasn’t been a regular fixture. Viewed largely as an unglamorous tie, we’ve bumped into each other like old school friends, a little embarrassed to admit we’ve not achieved as much as we’d liked since the last meeting.
This was not always the case.
From 1895-1925, Aston Villa and Sheffield United were amongst the golden boys of English football, winning 7 Championships and 10 FA Cups between them. The clubs played each other 59 times, with Villa winning 26 To United‘s 17. Both clubs were also involved in several title races, including one of English football’s best ever.
Never heard of it? I wouldn’t blame you. With today’s media obsession with the Premier League, very little pre-1992 gets mentioned, let alone 1902-03.
But it was a cracker.
In the final table, The Wednesday (Sheffield) were champions, but only 3 points separated them from neighbours United in 4th place. Villa finished runners up, just a point behind Wednesday with a better goal difference. Villa played Sheffield United at Villa Park on the final weekend, winning 4-2 in front of 25,000 (the average for the league was 11,000). The brilliantly named Scot, Jasper McLuckie, scored a hat-trick.
As results transpired, If Wednesday failed to win their final game the winners of the Villa Park clash would be Champions. Their opponents?
West Bromwich Albion.
Yeah… so Wednesday won 3-1 and Albion prevented another Championship for Villa. As it happened, Sunderland were most gutted. They lost their game in hand 1-0, to neighbours Newcastle, when a win would have meant the championship.
A further contrast to recent times, Villa and Sheffield United played each other at least twice for 36 consecutive seasons between 1893 and 1934 (minus war years before you correct my maths). Strangely, the two clubs were only drawn together once in the FA cup during this time. It was 1901.
In the semi finals.
The first game at the City Ground ended 2-2, in front of 31,000. United triumphed 3-0 in the replay at Derby’s Baseball Ground, before being stunned 3-1 by then non-league Spurs in the final replay.
Sheffield United also finished runners up to Villa twice during this era. We were dominant in our double winning season of 1896-97, with the Blades 11 points behind (a record at the time). Much closer was 1899-1900, when Villa and United fought out an exciting title race. The season turned on 31 March when United, a point clear at the top, were beaten at Nottingham Forest. Villa’s win at Burnley, the same day, put us top and George Ramsey’s boys made the advantage count. On the final day, Sheffield United won 2-1 at West Brom (them again) but Villa triumphed 2-0 at Stoke to take our 5th Championship.
During this period both clubs had 56 international players between them for England alone, together earning 172 caps. This at a time when there were far fewer international matches.
That’s not counting the numerous Welsh,Scottish and Irish internationals in both squads.
Attendances were amongst the best in the country, with 50,000 at Villa for the top of the table clash in March 1900, and 40,000 at Bramall Lane on Boxing Day 1921. Crowds flocked to watch both teams, and could expect their clubs to be challenging for trophies more often than not.
Alas, the good times were not to last.
Post-1925, both clubs have generally underachieved. We at Villa have been League and European Champions of course but, by 1925, we’d won 6 titles and 6 FA cups. If you’d told a Holte-ender in 1925 that Villa would win 8 major trophies (and that includes 5 league cups) in the next 95 years they’d be pretty underwhelmed. For United it has been much worse, their FA cup win that season was their last major trophy.
So what went wrong?
In short, lots. Increasing competition from more innovative sides in the 1930’s and 40‘s usurped the giants of the Victorian era and early 20th century. Both clubs also had issues with complacency, poor ownership and debt. Books have been written about this so I won’t ramble on here. Our nadir was reached with the Third Division days in the early 1970s. As for Sheffield United, on the same day Villa were crowned Champions in 1981, they were relegated to Division Four.
Fast forward to 2020, Aston Villa and Sheffield United are making history once again, as the Premier League’s first game following the pandemic shutdown. It’s also the first fixture with no fans present. If we can survive and United continue their recent form, a second golden age for Aston Villa and Sheffield United is surely just around the corner.
….Well, we can but hope!
By Rob Smith