Bring on next season: Sheffield United 2 Coventry 1

Players applaud fans at the end
Players applaud fans at the end

It says much about the remarkable journey Sheffield United have just experienced that a season which would usually be deemed a failure ended with its players being applauded off the pitch.

Seven months ago, the South Yorkshire club were propping up the rest of the division after being beaten by Coventry City at Sixfields Stadium. 35 games and 62 points later, this deserved triumph over Steven Pressley’s side saw them finish seventh in the table and lend further weight to the theory they will mount a serious challenge for promotion next term.

Nigel Clough, the manager responsible for delivering 58 of those points coupled with an FA Cup semi-final appearance, insisted United must look to exploit the feelgood factor which engulfed Bramall Lane on Saturday evening after goals from Ryan Flynn and Ben Davies secured the 22nd victory of his reign.

Flynn, one of the players tasked with ensuring the 48-year-old’s plans for Championship football come to fruition, echoed those sentiments before insisting their flirtation with the bottom four could actually work to the squad’s advantage when the 2014/15 campaign gets under way.

“There’s a buzz around here at the moment,” Flynn said. “And hopefully, with the belief and the togetherness there is here among the boys now, we can feed off that.

“There’s a really, really good feeling surrounding the whole ground now, on the pitch and off it, so that’s something we’ve got to try and make sure carries on.

“You can see how special it is when there are 20,000 people turning up to watch us even though we came seventh.

Usually, for a club like this one, that would be a disappointment, but with the start we had and where we’ve come from, it’s actually a positive factor to build on.”

Flynn, who signed a new contract on the eve of last weekend’s fixture, looks destined to be an influential member of Clough’s starting 11 irrespective of United’s manouevres during the forthcoming transfer window. Davies, together with fellow substitutes Matt Hill and Chris Porter, is waiting to discover whether his services will be required as former England international Clough looks to equip his squad with an attacking edge.

The fact that City, deducted 10 points in August after being placed into administration, entered the match knowing their League One status was also secure is testament to the achievements of Pressley and his staff.

Nevertheless, their results since that previous meeting with United illustrate why Clough has made a prolific centre-forward his top priority.

The visitors have now won only four of 19 outings following Leon Clarke’s departure to Wolverhampton Wanderers in January and, with Callum Wilson enduring his longest drought as a senior player, have found the going tough in recent weeks.

Nathan Delfouneso, signed on a temporary basis from Aston Villa, edged City in front after referee Darren Bond signalled advantage after a foul on John Fleck.

But United, who have included Livingston’s Marc McNulty on their list of potential targets, stretched their unbeaten run to eight when first Flynn and then Davies pounced.

“To begin with, we had to grind out results because of the position we found ourselves in,” Flynn continued. “And we were able to do that.

“There’s been a real progression here under the manager and huge credit must go to him for that. But we have to make sure we continue progressing to challenge those around us and be ready for every challenge because there are always hurdles to face.”

“When you are Sheffield United, every single match is tough because you do find that people raise their games against us,” he added. “Every single one is always tough.

“When I came here the aim was to go up and we’ve been close on a couple of occasions now. But the experience we’ve got of being in this league now, and of knowing that we can dig in when required, should hopefully stand us in good stead.”

Clough, whose appointment in October coincided with United’s dramatic change of fortune, has proven an inspirational leader since taking charge soon after that defeat in Northamptonshire.

Indeed, his employers would have finished fifth if only results under his stewarship counted and second had the season begun after February 1.

United’s success has been built on a miserly defence which, despite failing to keep a clean sheet during its opening 13 fixtures, has now recorded nine away and eight at home.

Arguably Clough’s greatest achievement, though, has been moulding a dishevelled and disparate group of players into a cohesive unit.

Those qualities were once again in evidence as, having fallen behind to Delfouneso’s strike just before the interval, United regained their composure and seized control of a second half which also saw captain Michael Doyle and Neill Collins go close.

Flynn applied the final tough to a superb move instigated by Conor Coady who, after allowing the ball to run across his body, powered past Fleck before the winger created enough time and space in a crowded penalty area to fire home beyond Joe Murphy.

Coady, like fellow loanee John Brayford, underlined why Clough is keen to broker fresh arrangements with Liverpool and Cardiff City respectively by celebrating his 50th United appearance with another assist. This time Davies was the beneficiary after an unselfish pass found him lurking unmarked out wide.

“We’ve got a really, really good bunch here now and so, hopefully, everyone stays,” Flynn said.

“But we’ll just have to wait and see whether that is the case. Time, with regards to getting into the play-offs, just ran out for us.

“It was always going to be a big ask because of where were were in the table and so it’s a shame there weren’t just a few more games left for us to really pressure those above us.

“But there are still so many positives for us to take with us into next season. And that’s what the focus has got to be on now. Personally, I really can’t wait.”

Heroes: John Brayford was a real livewire for United, Conor Coady claimed two assists and demonstrated excellent maturity to release Ben Davies, rather than testing Joe Murphy himself. Ryan Flynn also demonstrated why United have just handed him a new contract.