Sheffield United are jubilant as their remarkable promotion has brought Premier League football back to the Steel City for the first time since their controversial relegation in 2007.
The sight of thousands of Unitedites lining the streets last Tuesday to celebrate with the team is testament to just how big this is for the city.
It’s been a long road back. United endured a Championship Play-Off Final defeat in 2009, followed by relegation to the third tier in 2011 and a six year stint in League One. Rivals Sheffield Wednesday pinched promotion from under their noses in 2012, before three play-off campaigns ended in failure. As recently as 2016, they limped to 11th place – their lowest finish since 1983.
Up stepped straight-talking, boyhood Blade Chris Wilder to breathe new life into the club. His club. United reached the 100 point mark in League One in his first season, and they also began life back in the Championship by topping the early tables and recording a famous 4-2 win at Hillsborough. Although the campaign fizzled out a little, 10th place represented an impressive effort.
Ironically, 2018/19 did not start ideally with losses against Swansea City (1-2) and Middlesbrough (3-0), but for every question that’s been asked of them since then, Wilder’s men have provided the answer.
They were seven points adrift of the top two at Christmas, but have lost just two out of 23 league games since then.
United blew a 3-0 lead at Aston Villa in February to draw 3-3, and responded with seven straight clean sheets – including a pivotal 1-0 triumph at Leeds United.
The 3-2 home defeat to Bristol City in March, and the 1-1 draws against Birmingham City and Millwall in April appeared to have Leeds in the driving seat. But United didn’t panic. And three comfortable victories over Nottingham Forest, Hull City and Ipswich Town, coupled with Leeds’ defeats to Wigan Athletic and Brentford and draw with Villa, saw Wilder’s men over the line.
They finished 2nd on 89 points – six clear of Leeds, and five behind champions Norwich City, who wrapped up the title on the final day.
The evergreen Billy Sharp has been talismanic with 23 Championship goals, the additions of Dean Henderson, John Egan, Ollie Norwood and David McGoldrick were masterstrokes and improved the spine of the team, whilst the January loan signings of Kieran Dowell, Gary Madine and Scott Hogan all played their part.
United conceded the joint-fewest league goals (41) and kept the most clean sheets (21) in the Championship, and they thoroughly deserve promotion.
There will be work to do over the summer. Fringe players including Paul Coutts and Martin Cranie will become free agents, 2017/18’s top scorer Leon Clarke has been transfer listed after falling down the pecking order, and Henderson, Dowell, Madine and Hogan have returned to their parent clubs.
But in Wilder, the Blades have a manager they can trust, and he will proudly take the Blades back into England’s elite next term.