The City of Sheffield has often been described as “the home of association football.” Matches with six men on a side were played here as long ago as 1793. For a fact, the grounds at Bramall Lane are recognised as the oldest of all major league pitches anywhere in the world. The first game—a match between Hallam and Sheffield Club—was hosted here in 1862.
The team today known as Sheffield United was formed in 1889 by the President of the local Cricket Club, Sir Charles Clegg. One of the town’s already existing football clubs, Sheffield Wednesday, had moved from Bramall Lane to their own ground at Olive Grove, which forced the Bramall Lane tenants to create a new team in order to generate income.
The Club’s first season started off well, with a 3-1 win over Sheffield Club. That very same season produced United’s first appearance in the FA Cup, making it as far as the First Round. In 1892, the team’s application to join the Football League’s new Second Division was accepted, and they won promotion in their first attempt.
From 1893 through 1934, Sheffield United took up permanent residence in the First Division. They were nicknamed “The Blades,” in reference to the city’s status as the United Kingdom’s major producer of cutlery, and adopted red-and-white shirts with black shorts as their home kit.
During this early period in the team’s history, the Blades won the First Division Championship once, in 1898, and captured the FA Cup four times, beating Derby County 4-1 in 1899, Southampton 2-1 in 1902 following a 1-1 draw, Chelsea 3-0 in 1915, and Cardiff City 1-0 in 1925. They were also runners-up on two occasions, losing to Tottenham Hotspur 1-3 after a 1-1 draw in 1901 and Arsenal 0-1 in 1936.
Relegation in 1934 was United’s first major setback. They regained their status in the First Division in 1939, but then the League was suspended throughout World War II. Upon resumption of play, the highlight of matches at the Lane was Jimmy Hagan, a two-footed inside forward with an astonishing repertoire of tricks. He became a legend amongst Sheffield United fans for 20 years service, including a period as captain between 1946 and 1949.
Success proved elusive for the Blades in the post-war decades. They moved into the First Division and back down to the Second seven times between 1949 and 1976. Their darkest days came with relegation to the Second Division in 1976, followed by further relegation to the Third Division in 1979. And then came the final insult—a drop to the Fourth Division in 1981, when a last minute miss from a penalty kick occurred in the final game of the season.
Escape from the cellar required only one season, but Sheffield United’s climb back to the top flight took a bit longer. It took eight years for the Blades to finally leave the Third Division behind. Once clear of that tier, they needed only one season of Second Division play to advance to the First Division, so that by the time the Premier League was formed in 1992, United was one of the inaugural members.
In 1994, relegation came again. When the Championship was created in 2004, United were inaugural members once again. Fans were joyous over the Club’s promotion to the Premiership in 2006-07, but the cheering was short lived. Since then the Blades have slipped back through the Championship to League 1 (tier three), where they started the 2011-12 season.
Although United have not won a trophy since 1925, in the 2002-03 season they made it to both domestic cup semi-finals and won the First Division play-off final. In 2006, they finished runners-up in the Football League Championship, demonstrating that they can still put up a strong challenge. Indeed, over the course of 105 seasons, the Blades have played 60 in the top flight of British football—a lasting testament to their staying power.