Billy Sharp was ecstatic, Kieron Freeman danced around like a maniac and Chris Wilder, whose leadership has proven so inspiring this season, looked thoroughly exhausted by the sheer emotion of it all.
After 239 games, nearly 300 weeks and six years of pain, frustration and hurt, Sheffield United are back in the Championship. Following, midfielder Paul Coutts acknowledged, yet another performance laced with the fighting spirit and finesse which has made them such a force to be reckoned with in League One.
“The biggest thing about this team is exactly that, it’s a team,” he said, after United established an unassailable lead over third-placed Fleetwood. “We dig in for each other, we fight and we help each other out. That’s not just the starting eleven, that’s the whole group, including all the members of staff.”
Nine points clear at the top of the table and 16 ahead of Uwe Rosler’s side with only four fixtures left, United have achieved promotion in style and with matches to spare. But as Coutts admitted, nothing comes easy in a division they have spent far too long trying to escape. Northampton Town, who lifted the League Two title under Wilder’s stewardship last term, threatened to deny them the victory which would have guaranteed a top two finish when Marc Richards scored on the stroke of half-time. Rather than crumble, however, that set-back provoked the type of cold-hearted response which epitomises the visitors’ outlook and, when John Fleck scored after Leon Clarke’s equaliser, contrasted starkly with the chaotic scenes inside Sixfields stadium.
“It’s unbelievable,” Coutts, who started his professional career with Peterborough, continued. “It’s the second time I’ve had a promotion and the last one was my first season as a pro’.
“I didn’t really take that one in but that’s certainly not going to happen with this one. No way whatsoever. I’ll be soaking it all up.”
“It was pretty special at the end, I was other in the corner with Sharpy (Billy Sharp) and you could see there was going to be a stampede.
We’ll enjoy the moment but then it’s back to work because we’ve still got a title to try and win.”
a winning machine
Winning is something United have made a habit of this season; losing only three times since the end of August. It is a remarkable record of success which illustrates both the ruthlessness of their play and, following Wilder’s appointment 11 months ago, unwavering commitment to attacking football. “Chalk and cheese,” Coutts admitted, to the squad he inherited after being appointed in May.
“From where we were as a group when he came in to today is unbelievable. All credit to him, he’s done a great job.
“Last season was quite low, personally, in my career. Being involved in a group, at this size of club, that struggled just didn’t sit right. It didn’t sit right with anyone really.
“I would have been bitterly disappointed if that had been my last season here. So to get a chance from the gaffer to put that right means everything.
“It’s taken longer than I’d hoped or anyone else would have hoped for that matter. But this is what it’s all about. It’s what we play for and hopefully we’ve got this club back to somewhere near where it belongs.”
the people’s club
Captained and managed by supporters and co-owned by another lifelong fan, little wonder Wilder insists United are “a truly special club.” Although emotion has played its part this term - Billy Sharp appeared close to tears as, held aloft following the final whistle, he furiously beat the armband on his left bicep - there is more to their achievements than simply pride and passion. Fleck, on target for the second time in as many outings, has been magnificent and, like Coutts, is among a clutch of squad members capable of performing a level above. Nor is Wilder, or his assistant Alan Knill for that matter, afraid of taking big decisions; something they demonstrated here by naming Sharp, James Hanson and Mark Duffy on the bench.
“He’s just got us together and working hard,” Coutts, asked about the ‘Wilder Effect’, said. “It’s hard to explain. It’s just clicked. It’s not come easy because we’ve worked so hard from day one. But he’s drilled that into us and the togetherness has come. To think where this club was last season, it’s been an unbelievable 12 months and all credit to him.”
“It helps because it’s a demanding club with demanding fans,” Coutts added. “We get an unbelievable following at home and away. They demand a lot and he demands a lot too. He did it at this club (Northampton) last season as well so there’s obviously more to it than just being a fan. But, without a shadow of a doubt, I do think that’s helped him galvanise the whole place. Everybody, on the pitch and off it as well, is pulling in the same direction and on the same page.”
it’s all about the group
Wilder has made no secret of the fact that squads, not individuals, are the key to success. So it was fitting that Clarke, whose campaign was nearly hijacked by injury, scored one of the goals which helped them across the line. Wilder’s faith in the centre-forward has been questioned at times this term. But the finish, which left the excellent Adam Smith grasping at thin air, oozed composure and class. Although Fleetwood’s defeat at Oldham ultimately rendered the outcome of this game an irrelevance, Coutts said: “No we didn’t know the other scores. It was about us, we weren’t really worried about what was going on elsewhere. We just had to get our heads down and do the job.”