It has probably been the most public and well-documented courtship in Sheffield United history.
But, after a year of preening, posturing and flirtatious glances, John Brayford has finally tied the knot with Bramall Lane.
The defender, whose transfer was completed minutes before this FA Cup tie against Preston North End, kept a watching brief at Deepdale having represented Cardiff City in the previous round. However, despite that peripheral role, the scale of United’s investment in his services meant Brayford became the major subject of conversation once the final whistle had blown.
“I think our patience has paid off,” Nigel Clough, the United manager, said. “It’s a major deal for us and we’ve been trying to do it for five, six or seven months. Possibly even longer.
“We’ve known John since he was 16 and that means we appreciate him. His character and his attrributes.
“The last time he was here, as everybody knows, he made a big impression and that’s testament to John’s qualities both as a person and a player.
“We’re delighted to have him here and confident he can do exactly the same again.”
Clough was referring to a spell on loan with United last season when Brayford helped them stave off the threat of relegation before reaching the semi-finals of a tournament which, until Diego De Girolamo’s intervention midway through the second half, they seemed destined to exit this time around at the fourth round stage.
For the League One club his presence, combined with the recent acquisition of Paul Coutts and Kieron Freeman from Derby County, also serves to underline why its hierarchy has focused on pursuing long-standing targets rather than scoring PR points.
“Ideally, we’d have done it in the summer but Cardiff didn’t want to sell,” Clough acknowledged. “We lost him then but now we’ve got him for the next three and a half years so I think he was worth waiting for.
“We’ve worn them down, I think. Mal Brannigan, our managing director, has worn them down too because John isn’t the type to go knocking on doors and asking for a move.
“John is a rareity. He wants to play somewhere where he’s comfortable and he’s happy.
“He had a rough time to start with there, at Cardiff, but had been a mainstay in the team of late.
“So for John to want to drop down a level, hopefully only for a while at least, is huge testament to his experiences here.”
The story and statistics of Brayford’s career illustrate why Clough, who has paid an estimated £1.5 million to acquire his services, was so keen to resurrect a partnership which started at Burton Albion before continuing at the iPro Stadium.
The 27-year-old old has made 322 appearances since turning professional with 230 of those coming under the United manager’s tutelage. He lost only three times during his first spell with the Blades.
“For someone to galvanise people like he did, without being a big talker, is unusual,” Clough said. “He does that by the way he approaches the game which is exactly the way a supporter wants to see a player do it.
“The one game that always sticks in my mind was at Fulham, just after John had come here. It went to extra time and, because he’s not had much football, he was telling us that he was shattered.
“We told him not to worry and just to stick in position, stay back and be content to protect our goal.
“The next moment John was bombing past us down the wing. His enthusiasm meant that he just couldn’t help himself.”
Brayford’s presence, unfortunately for De Girolamo, overshadowed the Italy youth international’s own landmark moment. The goal which cancelled out Paul Gallagher’s opener was his first senior effort for United and fifth of the campaign following a successful loan spell at York City.
With next month’s replay further complicating an already-congested fixture schedule, Clough indicated afterwards that he might be forced to postpone De Girolamo’s much-anticipated return to Bootham Crescent. But, with the youngster yet to accept United’s offer of a new contract, the Lane bosswas understandably loath to shower the raw but supremely talented centre-forward with praise, preferring to acknowledge the “excellent” contributions of Jose Baxter, Craig Alcock and Chris Basham instead.
“Ideally, we wanted some of our home-grown players to go back out to further their development and experience,” Clough said. “But, because of all the matches we’ve got coming-up now, that’s something we might have to change.
“We’re going to have to utilise the squad very carefully, and they are part of that, so it could be that they stay. At the very least, we’ll assess the situation on a game by game or match by match basis.
“If they do go out, then I think it would be on youth rather than full loans. That way, we have slightly more flexibility with regards to bringing them back quickly if required.”
“We want what’s best for Diego,” Clough added. “It might not happen for him every single week but there are good people here for him to learn from and listen too.
“Jose has been in his position before, dealing with a lot of expectation when you are coming through the ranks, and he is the type of person who leads by example. We gave him the captaincy today and you could see why out there.
“Another young lad, Louis Reed, is probably the best person for Diego to look and and follow at the moment because he knows he’s going to have to drop in and out, understands the reasons why, but just keeps getting on with his job.
“At that stage of your career, it doesn’t happen for you every single week. But Louis makes sure, as we’ve seen this season, when his opportunities come along, that he takes them and matures.
“Young players know they will always be given an opportunity here.”
De Girolamo struck after North End’s Gallagher had opened the scoring with a long-range free-kick. United were not at their best before the interval.
“We got the shape wrong,” Clough admitted. “We thought it best suited the personnel we had but it had to change.”
They improved immeasurably after the break with De Girolamo seeing an effort hacked off the line by Calum Woods before meeting substitute Jamie Murphy’s cross.
“Simon (Grayson, the North End manager) said to me just before the end that surely we didn’t want a replay,” Clough revealed.
“But it’s certainly preferable to going out. We showed our determination and desire to stay in the cup by coming from a goal down and Preston went about their work with the same qualities too.”
PRESTON NORTH END: Stuckmann 6, Clarke 7, Humphrey 6, Kilkenny* 6, Gallagher 7, Woods 7, Buchanan 6, Reid*** 7, Welsh** 6, Huntington 7, Ebanks-Blake 6. Substitutes: Hudson, Laird, Wiseman, K Davies**(74), King*(62) 6, Brownhill, Browne***(85).
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 6, Alcock 7, Basham 6, Baxter 7, B Davies*** 6, McGahey 6, Higdon 7, Reed 6, De Girolamo** 7, Kennedy 6, Dimaio* 6. Substitutes: Long, Harris***(82), Doyle, Murphy*(56) 7, Scougall, McNulty**(78), Campbell-Ryce.