By Josh Zealand & Zach Thorpe
As the final day of the Championship season arrived, nerves jangled around the red and white half of Sheffield. The Blades required at least a draw against already champions Fulham, as well as results for Middlesbrough, Luton and Millwall going in United’s favour.
A sold out Bramall Lane awaited, and all the pre-match nerves were deemed silly when United took a three-goal lead in the opening 25 minutes. There was pandemonium in the stands. With so much riding on this one game, Unitedites couldn’t quite believe how well their side was playing. Sheffield United were notoriously bad in high pressure games, how on earth were they making this look so simple.
I’ll tell you how. Morgan Gibbs-White.
The on-loan sensation headed in an Oli Norwood cross at the 10 minute mark, giving United the dream start. They say you’re not supposed to fall in love with a loanee, but I will happily let Gibbs-White break my heart when he leaves us at the end of the season. It has been an absolute joy to watch him play football.
Gibbs-White then set up in-form youngster Iliman Ndiaye after a slip by Fulham midfielder Jean Michael Seri to slot in number two and Ndiaye’s fourth goal in five games. Just four minutes later the game seemed dead and buried when Sander Berge poked the ball home from six yards.
A jubilant and gobsmacked Bramall Lane saw Berge unselfishly find Enda Stevens for a simple finish to make it 4-0 in the second half. Game. Set. Match.
The result sees Sheffield United finish fifth, meaning they will face the difficult opponents of Nottingham Forest, who only managed a draw on the final day.
Now I know all this sounds great and hopeful but lets remember what Sheffield United are like in the playoffs. Yes sometimes we ease through the semi final legs, sometimes we don’t. And yes we can score at Wembley, but can we win at Wembley… No. Well not in my lifetime anyway. But of course the dream and hopes of everyone Sheffield United fan are still there, because why not; it is football after all.
Here is Zach’s take.
When we drew 0-0 with Coventry in the middle of November, I said to my Dad that our season was over. He argued that it wasn’t, that we were in serious danger of dropping into the third tier again. Slavisa Jokanovic came with a reputation of sexy football and a second tier specialist. We must have appointed his brother instead. The football was boring, lacked intensity and he was creating the narrative that our team of heroes for the last five years needed disbanding and rebuilding from the ground up.
Fast forward six months and Paul Heckingbottom has regalvanised Bramall Lane. He’s gone back to the roots of what made this side so successful in the first place. Reinstalling the ‘hardwork beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard’ attitude which saw us rise from the bottom of League One to the Premier League in three seasons. The job that ‘Hecky and Stuart McCall’ have done since they arrived at Shirecliffe is nothing short of miraculous.
They’ve had to pick up a broken side, still baring the scars of last season’s humiliation. They’ve had to deal with a training pitch which turns into Heeley City Baths whenever there’s anymore than two minutes of heavy rain. They’ve had to deal with injuries to the majority of the squad. Bogle, Basham, Stevens, McGoldrick, Sharp, McBurnie, Brewster, just to name a few.
There have been times over the past few months where I’ve doubted whether this group had it in them to get into the play-offs. Odd performances away at Coventry, Millwall and Stoke, coupled with flat displays at home to Reading and Hull have meant that we’ve made the end to this season more difficult than it probably needed to be.
However, we are now only three games away from a place in the Premier League. And I disagree with the bookmakers, I make us the favourites to go on and win it. Nottingham Forest, for all of their good work under Steve Cooper, are missing Keenan Davis. He was a real handful at Bramall Lane when they visited in March and I feel that they’ve been toothless in attack without him. Huddersfield and Luton have been ‘feel good’ stories, proving that you don’t need to spend tens of millions to build a competitive squad. But, in a one off game and even with our injuries, I’d take our squad over any of our competitors.
Gibbs-White and Ndiaye have proved that they are a dangerous strike force, even though neither are natural strikers. Sander Berge has come into his own, relishing an attacking box-to-box role. Norwood and Fleck, despite being told that their legs have gone, are still dictating games. Egan, still one of the best centre halves in the division, backed up by his pocketing of 43 goal Mitrovic on Saturday.
A full capacity, sold out Bramall Lane will be scary on Saturday. Forest won’t like it. They’ve played in front of big crowd all season but only at home. They won’t know what’s hit them.
I’ve seen us be 3-0 down to Wolves at half time at the Milennium Stadium in Cardiff. I’ve seen us lose 1-0 to Burnley at Wembley after missing out on automatic promotion on the final day of the season. I was there when Steve Simonsen ballooned his penalty into the crowd on a scorching day in London. We’d made the near 10 hour round trip to Yeovil, only to see a late goal send them to Wembley instead of us. I watched us score five away from home at Swindon and still lose 7-6 on aggregate.
Maybe I’m a fool, maybe I’m deluded. But I believe that this squad is going to be different.