Sheffield United were promoted back to the Championship after beating Northampton Town this afternoon.
There were delirious scenes at Sixfields as Chris Wilder’s side secured promotion with four games remaining to end six long years of pain and hurt.
Although Fleetwood Town’s defeat by Oldham Athletic rendered the outcome here an irrelevence - United entered the game knowing they only had to match the Lancastrains’ result to guarantee themselves a top two berth - defeat does not sit comfortably with this talented and tenacious side.
So, after Marc Richards had threatened an upset by firing Northampton ahead, Leon Clarke and John Fleck pounced to stretch their unbeaten run to 13 games.
United’s one-and-a-half thousand strong following went barmy. Likewise the six thousand or so watching the drama unfold on the big screens back at Bramall Lane.
It was a performance which summed up everything which is good about the squad Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill have pieced together since being appointed in May. Accomplished professionals with mighty big hearts.
United’s achievements under the 49-year-old are certainly deserved. Big stages beckon and, on the evidence of the past nine months, plenty of those will be conquered too.
United, who held an impromptu team meeting on the pitch after arriving at the stadium, showed no sign of nerves
during the early exchanges. But Wilder pre-match prediction that his former club would be in no mood to roll out the red carpet proved correct. Indeed, by the time referee Mark Heywood signalled for half-time, Justin Edinburgh’s side
had created enough to remind United they were in a real match.
John-Joe O-Toole and Marc Richards both went close after Carruthers had rattled the woodwork before Mark Smith drew a fine save from Simon Moore. So, when Richards fired Northampton in front seconds before the interval,
United could not say they had not been warned. The finish - a powerful drive across the despairing but helpless more - was emphatic. But Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill, who led Northampton to the League Two title last term,
will acknowledge United’s marking left much to be desired.
The execution of the shot which drew United level, however, was superb. Clarke has been a peripheral figure throughout much of the season as a persistent ankle problem threatened to curtail his campaign. But, after scoring the opener against Coventry City three days earlier, he once again demonstrated why United have been so desperate to get him fit. Fleck’s strike - he barged a hole through Northampton’s defence before clipping the ball home - was also excellent.
Wilder has built his reputation on brave decision-making; whether it be tactically or even in terms of the clubs where he has worked. It was a trait which again became evident when the team sheets were delivered the the match officials
office an hour before kick-off. Billy Sharp, the visitors’ captain and leading scorer, was rested in favour of Leon Clarke while James Hanson and Mark Duffy also started on the bench. It nearly proved a master-stroke when two of
those drafted into Wilder’s first choice eleven - Carruthers and Jay O’Shea - came within a whisker of breaking the deadlock inside the opening 10 minutes. The latter, after Carruthers had seen a looping, long-range effort cannon
back off the crossbar - was also involved in the move which saw Paul Coutts, captaining United in Sharp’s absence, scoop over after combining with Leon Clarke.
But their momentum was halted when Richards was presented with a glorious opportunity to turn home from point blank range, only to scoop his volley over Moore’s goal and the United supporters in the stand behind.
John Fleck’s work has been laced with quality in recent months and, after producing a superb touch to kill a high clearance stone dead, he nearly caught Northampton’s defence napping with a combination of intelligenvce and skill. Moments after Moore had done well to deny Michael Smith, the Scot stepped-up to take a free-kick on the left hand side of the hosts’ box. Despite shaping to cross - at least 10 players appeared to have been fooled - he swept a shot to the near post instead. Adam Smith, Moore’s opposite number, gathered the ball well before Richards converted at the other end.
Sharp’s introduction was an acknowledgement that something, from United’s perspective, needed to change. Likewise the entrance of Hanson soon after as their line-up assumed a more familiar look.
Fleck tested Smith’s handling again but, just past the hour, it was Clarke who hauled United back on level terms.
Then, with two minutes of normal time remaining, Fleck pounced and the pandemonium began.
Northampton Town: Smith, Moloney, Buchanan, P Anderson (Revell 70), Diamond, Richards, O’Toole, Nyatanga, Smith (McWilliams 70), Taylor, Williams (McDonald 81). Not used: K Anderson, McCourt, Phillips, Cornell..
Sheffield United: Moore, P’Connell, Wright, Basham, Freeman, Lafferty, Coutts, Fleck, Carruthers (Sharp 46), O’Shea (Hanson 56), Clarke (Ebanks-Landell 82). Not used: Long, Done, Duffy, Chapman.
Referee: Mark Heywood (West Yorkshire).