IT WAS a privilege to be at Bramall Lane on Sunday. Not least to witness the nostalgia of Chris Morgan's return to Sheffield United's back four, albeit for a few fleeting minutes.
The occasion of Morgs' testimonial, however, offered up much, much more than expected. It was the first opportunity against testing opposition to see first hand what fans can expect under new manager Nigel Adkins. The 12,002 who watched a 2-2 draw against Premier League Newcastle were not disappointed.
Among them former United managers Danny Wilson and Kevin Blackwell, Lane caretaker John Carver, recently sacked as Newcastle's head coach, Steve Stone, first team coach, sacked with him, and England Under-21 manager Gareth Southgate.
Adkins has talked a good game since walking through the front door at Bramall Lane on June 2, but can he deliver? On this evidence he has used his limited time wisely and Unitedites are set for a memorable season. It also left Adkins with many healthy problems to resolve between now and the big kick-off in two week' time.
Yes, this was only a friendly, played at medium pace. Given the technical quality of the opposition, however, who clearly wanted to win and backed by 2,000 travelling Geordies, it was a good litmus test.
An exam they passed with a great deal of credit. Gone was the inhibition which cost the Blades dearly last season under former manager Nigel Clough. Yes, really. They had urgency. United, playing with two strikers in a 4-4-2, were quick to move forward. Believe it or not, they had options when the ball was delivered into the box. In fact, the Blades were impressive in all departments.
Significantly, Adkins started with three of four players whom Clough had deemed, for personal reasons, not part of the set-up. England Under-21 international goalkeeper George Long, central defender and, significantly captain on the day Neill Collins, and Callum McFadzean. The other, Jamal Campbell-Ryce, was introduced in the second-half. All did well enough, not unexpectedly, to pose the question why were they ever let go?
For me stand-out performers were Che Adams up front alongside Marc McNulty, and McFadzean at left-back. With strikers Billy Sharp and Conor Sammon signed just 18 hours earlier, United have serious options in the goal-scoring department and, most importantly, a cutting edge which has been absent for far too long.
"it's all about stopping them from going in at one end and putting them in at the other," was Adkins' simple analysis of what is required to win promotion. Last season, such was the fragility of United's central defensive area, a sign may as well have been planted on the edge of the penalty box declaring 'opposition strikers this way'.
Adkins confirmed he was actively seeking another centre-half before the transfer window closes on September 1. In many fans' eyes that would be the last piece of the jigsaw. He might, however, have added controlling the middle of the park. I still think United are missing a quality midfield general to establish authority, offer stability and dictate their game.
The welcome sight of Collins, wearing the captain's armband and making his first appearance at Bramall Lane since September 27 last year after falling foul of Clough, is one half of the problem solved in central defence. His partner against Newcastle, Jay McEveley, has impressed Adkins but as any regular at the Lane knows, consistency is not his strong point.
Jose Baxter can drift in and out of matches and finished last season's league programme looking jaded. He was wisely omitted from the play-off semi-finals after failing a random drug test.
On Sunday he made a telling contribution in midfield. Maybe rejuvenated after fearing his career was threatened when traces of ecstasy, from what he says was a spiked drink, were discovered in his system. United fans will be hoping Adkins can provide the spark to rediscover the qualities in Baxter which excited so many as a youngster at Everton.
Adams, signed as an 18-year-old (now 19) from Ilkeston by Clough, did enough to prove last season that he has talent. The giant step up from Northern Premier League football did not phase him and he seems to have a head on his shoulders beyond his years.
Clough played the youngster wide left in a five-man midfield and restricted him to five starts in nine league appearances. It was in the second leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final at Bramall Lane when his potential became clear, scoring United's goals in the 2-2 draw against Tottenham Hotspur. His only other strike, a classy one at that, came three months later. The climax to a shambolic play-off semi-final at Swindon, he stroked home United's equaliser in the 90th minute of a bizarre 5-5 draw on the night. No wonder Preston romped to the Championship in the final with a 4-0 win. It pains me to say it, but on reflection at least United fans were spared further Wembley agony.
Adkins has spotted Adams' potential as a fully-fledged striker and is giving him the opportunity to prove it. He missed a sitter against Newcastle but was a constant threat and did enough to suggest that the comfort zone of others is about to be challenged.
The arrival of Sharp only complicates matters, in a good way. Marc McNulty, Jamie Murphy, Michael Higdon (remember him?) may all have to re-evaluate their roles. Adkins, like former United manager Neil Warnock, believes, wisely, you can't have enough strikers. Given United's difficulties to score in recent times, it's not something to disagree with. Adkins, however, may face a stiff test of his man management skills in the forward department to keep players motivated and on board.
McFadzean, developed at United's Academy, looked to have a promising career ahead of him until Clough's reign and was subsequently cast out to Chesterfield and then Burton Albion. You would have thought if he was going to be ditched it would have been in 2013 when found guilty of two charges of assault and given a 12-month community service order under supervision.
McFadzean was foolish, irresponsible lad who let everyone down including himself. Hopefully he is maturing. He has certainly proved his worth on the field. Not good enough for the Lane, he won his first Scotland Under-21 cap in March. Against Newcastle you could see why.
CALM AND COMPOSED
Not even listed in the match programme, the 21-year-old looked calm and composed at left-back. So much so that Bob Harris, recovering from injury, who has made the position his own, and McEveley who is more comfortable operating in that role, may find themselves in a competition for places that would have been unimaginable a few months ago.
McNulty showed great composure to slot the ball past Newcastle's Dutch international goalkeeper Tim Krul and right-back Kieron Freeman maintained Adkins' unbeaten record at United with a late screamer which Luis Suarez would have been proud of.
The occasion, of course belonged to Morgan and the charities he supported. Bluebell Wood Children's Hospice, Weston Park Hospital Cancer Charity and the Gary Speed Trust Fund set up to promote grassroots sport following the former United player and manager's suicide. Morgan was and still is a magnificent contributor to United whose career was cut-short by injury but who continues to pursue his managerial ambitions, coaching the Under-21s.
Maligned, misrepresented and stereotyped in some circles away from the Lane, Morgs was uncompromising as a player but, importantly, fair and honest. Qualities that will stand him in good stead and also those who are coached by him. Add to that is his progressive approach to the modern game which may surprise some.
The man who has made 272 competitive appearances for the Blades, only seven of them as a substitute, looked a little nervous as he replaced Collins and slipped on the captain's armband for the last time as the match drew to a close. But that uncharacteristic nervousness didn't stop him from trying to marshall the back four into a straight line as Newcastle tried for a winner.
It was fitting that on a summer's afternoon in July the heavens opened and the temperature plummeted to 10 degrees under leaden Sheffield skies. Morgan weather.
West Yorkshire referee Andrew Madley got in on the act, issuing Morgs, who holds the club's record for dismissals – six – with a straight red as he stepped onto the pitch. Morgs waved him away in fits of laughter.
Morgan might even had provided a fairytale ending. United were awarded a free kick just outside Newcastle's penalty area in front of the Kop and teammates beckoned for Morgs to step up and take it. A curler into the top right-hand corner of the net was required if he was going to score his 16th goal for United and sign off in dramatic style. He blasted it straight into the Geordie wall.
Then in a well-crafted speech delivered from the pitch, Morgan acknowledged both sets of fans. Newcastle's following of 2,000 was truly remarkable. He offered his appreciation to the many people ("I can't name them all or we'll be here all day") who have influenced his career. Former United and Barnsley boss Wilson, watching from the director's box, is clearly close to his heart.
"I got a call from Brian Kidd [United's former assistant manager under Bryan Robson] this morning from Vietnam where Manchester City are on tour," revealed Morgan. "To think that someone like him would be thinking of me is overwhelming."
Asked about his final act, that bid for glory, the 37-year-old told it as it was. "I never was any good at free kicks," he smiled at the crowd who gave him a standing ovation. "In fact I did everything I tell my Under-21 lads not to do."
That's Chris Morgan. The latest Legend of the Lane. Modest, even humble, honest to the last and not afraid to say so.