IT'S a year to the calendar day since 'Your not fit to wear the shirt' first rang out from furious fans at Bramall Lane. What a difference now.
The occasion was the League One visit of struggling Shrewsbury Town who won 4-2 after former boss Nigel Adkins' Sheffield United embarrassed themselves and capitulated in front of a horrified crowd. The writing was on the wall but it took another six months before anything was done about it and Chris Wilder arrived in May.
What's happened since then has been truly remarkable. The club, the players, the manager and his backroom staff paint an unrecognisable picture from the shambles that went before. High-flying United have 'good' problems now. Problems that two home fixtures have brought into sharp focus.
It's taken five months but Wilder proved on Tuesday night he’s a fully paid up member of the manager’s union after all.
The Blades boss reverted from his usual strategy of refreshing honesty, instead sugar-coating his side’s desperate struggle to break down managerless Bury. It may be hard on a man who has transformed Bramall Lane into a hotbed of optimism. That’s only because he has set the bar so high.
Superiority has never been questioned but in the space of four days United were presented with two opportunities to sweep away struggling teams which amassed four red cards between them, and failed to do so. It serves as an early warning. Against tougher opposition they may have been found wanting.
Arriving without a win in 12 matches in all competitions, the Shakers had conceded 14 goals in their previous three fixtures, played the second half at Bramall Lane with ten men and finished with nine.
The Blades dominated from start to finish against a team whose only intention was not to concede and with a group of players out on their feet in the closing stages. Shortcomings in the technical department were compensated admirably by dogged determination against all odds.
Yet it took until three minutes into added time before Bury were breached – cruelly from their perspective after hanging on by a thread for so long – and then only after defender Ethan Ebanks-Landell, an ex-Bury loanee, had been thrown up front in a last ditch attempt to win the match.
United fans went wild. The players collapsed on top of man-of-the-moment Ebanks-Landell in front of the Kop. Wilder and his staff in the dugout danced along the touchline in a celebratory style that will be difficult to better if promotion itself is secured.
“Got there in the end,” said the jubilant manager. “Nothing better than a last-minute winner is there? Great scenes at the end and that’s what you’re in the game for.”
He added: “Credit to the opposition to stay in the game. They sat deep. This might happen now, it may be a thing we have to overcome. We needed the first goal earlier than what we did to get the opposition to come out but it’s up to them how they set up and obviously they sat in, sat in and sat in. We just needed that one bit of magic, one pass one final finish. Whatever time it comes we’ll take and we’ll take this one.”
Asked if United had made hard work of clinching victory, he added: “Only the finishing. (Daniel) Lafferty should score, we’ve hit the bar. I thought we played some really good stuff. Yet again we moved the ball about the pitch great. We changed at half time because they were sat deep and we wanted Leon [Clarke] on. We’ve missed a couple of chances that we can score, a couple of shots that have gone wide, blocks and saves but I just thought everyone in the ground believed that there was something in it for us and we’re delighted that there is.”
It felt like a memorable victory. That’s what, as Wilder pointed out, late goals do in the dying embers of a match. They are sweetest after a stirring contest. This could never be described as a contest. It was a night of intense one-sided frustration that will be long forgotten if Championship football returns next season.
Should it not happen, it will be held up as another example of why United weren’t good enough. Those final moments were more akin to the relief of finally spotting an exit after spending an unnecessary hour-and-a-half endlessly circling a one-way system.
Unitedites left the Lane and into the damp night with a spring in their step and smiles all round. After all victory enabled United to maintain their place in second spot and with a match in hand keep leaders Scunthorpe within touching distance. It was also the Blades 11th win in an impressive unbeaten league run now extended to 14 matches. What was there not to like?
But Wilder has set a gold standard and his team’s most recent performances should trigger alarm bells that need a response. More so the previous 2-1 victory at the Lane against Shrewsbury, another team to finish with nine men. Trailing by two goals at the break, the Shropshire lads managed against all odds to at least win the second half with a single goal. Wilder acknowledged his side’s poor performance. Against Bury it was much improved but they had carte blanche to demolish the Shakers with a vast area of the pitch unopposed. Despite two thirds of the possession they didn’t have the ingenuity to do it.
Imagine if United had scored in the third minute and had spent the remainder of the match unable to capitalise against a team which played the second half with ten men and finished with nine. Same result but would Unitedites have left the Lane in party mood?
Of course you can only beat what is in front of you and United have done just that. It is worth taking a look, however, at the other end of the League One table. Three of the last four wins have been against teams now occupying the relegation zone, MK Dons, Chesterfield and Shrewsbury. Bury are two points above it. Two of those clubs, MK Dons and the Shakers, arrived at the Lane managerless.
After all the dust has settled the last few days have been a sobering experience even though United have emerged with six points, confidence intact and supremacy unchallenged. To look away and move on gung-ho, however, would be a mistake. Much tougher tests await and United need an enduring resilience to meet them.
They have also exposed pitfalls and emphasised how important, as if it wasn’t known already, what happens in the January transfer window is going to be. As far as automatic promotion is concerned it is absolutely key. Given the club’s play-off history it is likely to be make or break. Either way United have to strengthen with high quality in key areas.
Injuries which forced the substitutions of Mark Duffy, Paul Coutts and Kieron Freeman – all key figures – against the Shrews demonstrated how quickly the landscape can change. Add to that the very real possibility of Wolves recalling on-loan Ebanks-Landell, the rock in United’s defence. And what if top scorer Billy Sharp were to be injured? The Blades have much talked about firepower, but precious little of it in the league campaign has been provided by the captain’s strike partners. From out of the ashes of last season, United, thanks entirely to Wilder, have forged themselves a reputation they should be proud of. But It is always dangerous to start believing your own publicity, at least until the job has been completed. Something Wilder could never be accused of.
The same cannot be said of some of the players during the last few seasons who have been only too willing to fall into that particular rabbit hole at the first glimpse of sunshine. We know how hollow it turned out to be. Thankfully the has-beens and no-hopers cultivated by ex-bosses Nigel Clough and Adkins, have been weeded out. The current squad is head and shoulders above what went before. Nevertheless, if the general consensus at Shirecliffe is that the last two home fixtures resulted in much to be proud about, then be concerned.
Which is why it was so surprising listening to Wilder post-Bury on Tuesday night when he spoke with all the enthusiasm of a Blades fan down the pub or of one of his stereotypical managerial colleagues ‘taking the positives’. Neatly side-stepping from a coaches point of view concerns that glowed in the dark. Maybe like everyone else he was caught up in the moment. Normal service has surely been resumed up at the training ground.
What cannot be ignored is the significance of the last two wins. United are on a different planet from where they were against Shrewsbury 12 months ago. A humiliating defeat which left the Blades in 12th position with 26 points. A snapshot of everything that was wrong about Adkins, his team and an invasive culture that was allowed to proliferate at the club and alienate its loyal fanbase.
Earlier in that desperate season Bury embarked on the opening leg of a league double over the Blades, a 3-1 win in Sheffield, scorer of the Shakers third goal being one Leon Clarke.
United have travelled a remarkably long way since then.