West Ham versus Sheffield United has been dubbed the ‘Carlos Tevez derby’ in the past and is certainly among the more bizarre ‘rivalries’ to have developed in English football, one born out of a very specific and unusual set of circumstances that can’t ever be repeated.
West Ham looked doomed to drop out of the Premier League in 2006/07, only for a miraculous late recovery in the final two months of the season to save them. The Hammers enjoyed successive top half finishes after that, although relegation finally caught up with them in 2010/11.
Sheffield United, on the other hand, were relegated, ensuring that their first spell as a Premier League club since the early 1990s would be a brief one. They didn’t return to the top flight again until 2019, having dropped as low down the EFL ladder as League One in the intervening years.
Carlos Tevez factor
The animosity that persists to this day stems from Sheffield United believing that they were cheated out of a place in the Premier League by West Ham and the story centres around Carlos Tevez.
It was Tevez's late season performances that kept the Hammers up, and his arrival alongside fellow Argentine rising star Javier Mascherano from Corinthians in August 2006 was a huge shock. They were two of the most promising talents in South America and would each prove themselves to be world class in the years to come, yet somehow they wound up at a mid-table side.
Mascherano had a fairly rotten time at West Ham. He started only three times for the club in the Premier League, all of which ended in defeat, and played just seven further minutes from late October onwards until Liverpool bought him at the end of the January transfer window.
Initially, Tevez wasn’t much better. He played more often but he couldn’t find the net in a poor team until, suddenly, he discovered a rich vein of goalscoring form in the spring.
Tevez scored his first West Ham goal in a game against Tottenham at the start of March. He also got two assists as the Hammers put three past their London rivals, only to collapse at the very end and see what should have been a 3-2 win become a 4-3 defeat in stoppage time.
At the end of that game, West Ham were 10 points adrift of safety and were all but relegated with only nine left to play. Sheffield United, for the record, were seven points clear of the drop zone in the relative safety of 16th place. They just needed to see the season out and would have survived.
With a taste for goals, Tevez inspired West Ham to a string of victories. He scored in a comeback win against Blackburn when Premier League action returned after the March international break and the Hammers got lucky when he inadvertently blocked Bobby Zamora’s winner on the goal-line and it was still allowed to stand – long before the advent of goal-line technology, it must be said.
Tevez got a goal and assist in a 2-0 win over Middlesbrough, inspired further victories against Everton and Wigan and had a hand in all three West Ham goals to beat Bolton 3-1. In the midst of that, they actually lost 3-0 against Sheffield United.
By the final day of the season, Tevez had helped West Ham pull out of the relegation zone into 17th place. They could match 16th place Sheffield United for points but were behind on goal difference. Wigan were 18th, three points behind, and also had a better goal difference.
West Ham survived but Sheffield United didn’t
Sheffield United and Wigan were playing each other and, as long as Wigan didn’t win, the Hammers and the Blades would both be safe. West Ham at least had their destiny in their own hands, even if it meant taking points off Manchester United, and Tevez duly obliged once more. He scored the only goal to secure a 1-0 win, arguably sealing his transfer to Old Trafford in the process. Sheffield United, meanwhile, lost against Wigan and were forced down into drop zone.
From a respectable run of form until the March international break, Sheffield United lost their way in the final stretch of the season. They only took seven points from their final nine games, failing to beat fellow strugglers Charlton in April and blowing it on the final day against Wigan when a draw would have been enough. Conversely, West Ham had won seven of their last nine games in the run-in to claim 21 points from a possible 27, with Tevez the inspiration.
The issue for Sheffield United was Tevez and they blamed West Ham’s escape for their relegation.
Third party ownership
The arrival of Tevez and Mascherano had been shrouded in controversy. It was said that other Premier League sides had rejected the opportunity to sign them because of messy third party arrangements, with a private company owning the rights to both players.
Premier League rules at the time dictated that clubs could not sign players contracted to third parties that could "materially influence its policies or the performances of its teams". When the double transfer was investigated in the spring of 2007, West Ham were also found guilty of not acting in good faith towards the Premier League and withholding documentation.
The result was a fine of £5.5m in April 2007 while the season was ongoing. However, there was no points deduction for West Ham and Tevez was allowed to continue playing.
As it happened, the Premier League tightened its rules on third party ownership after that to outlaw it completely and close any loopholes that were previously left open.
Sheffield United protests & legal battles
Sheffield United were understandably outraged when they were ultimately relegated and West Ham survived. Celebrity fan Sean Bean even led a protest of Blades supporters to the UK parliament, demanding further action be taken against West Ham over the Tevez saga.
The club took West Ham to court to fight for what they saw as justice, with the pair eventually agreeing an out of court compensation deal worth up to £20m in 2009, by which time Sheffield United had been playing in the Championship for nearly two years.
West Ham fans have always accused the Yorkshire side of hypocrisy, pointing out that they themselves were the subject of a 2007 investigation from the Premier League over their signing of striker Steve Kabba from Watford a year earlier. Ultimately, nothing came of it.
West Ham, whether Sheffield United think it was sufficient, were punished and it was a record fine. Hammers supporters equally suggest that the Blades had the opportunity to pick up the points they needed to stay up – it was still in their own hands until the final whistle on the final day and a home game against Wigan was arguably far more favourable than an away trip to the champions.
The lasting legacy
Ex-Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock has held eight jobs since 2007, but as recently as 2019 he was still speaking about his ‘bitterness’ and accused the Premier League of allowing West Ham to get away with it by virtue of being a ‘big London club’. He remains adamant that Sheffield United wouldn’t have got the same treatment had the shoe been on the other foot, so to speak.
The 2006/07 season and the Carlos Tevez incident may be long consigned to the Premier League history books, but the whole saga has added a lasting layer of animosity and prickliness to future clashes between West Ham and Sheffield United. And both still believe they were in the right.