KEVIN McCABE has pledged that Sheffield United will be in a position to make a serious Championship challenge next season.
After returning to Bramall Lane having just watched United clinch promotion at Northampton, the Blades co-owner assured fans waiting for the team’s triumphant return: “It's been ten years since we were relegated from the Premier League, but this club is on an upward curve. This is a club that is going places. We have a great manager and a great infrastructure, including kids at our academy, to enable us to make a real challenge in the Championship next season.
“The truth is we are a big club in terms of this (the ground), facilities and you, the supporters. We get more kids coming to watch Sheffield United than our colleagues across the city."
United supporters are accustomed to well intended proclamations from McCabe which haven’t always lived up to expectations. “Europe inside five years” after promotion to the Premier League in 2006. “The Blades are bouncing back” following relegation 12 months later. Since then, of course United’s unimaginable decline has included six years in football’s third tier.
Fans will, however, be hoping that this time it rings true, especially after his confirmation last season that co-owning partner, Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, will make the “game-changing” investment promised by the Saudi royal three-and-a-half years ago when he bought a 50 per cent share of the club for £1.
“It’s been planned to be the case,” McCabe said in a local radio interview 14 months ago. “It hasn’t been the case and I ask you to recognise we’ve got pretty close to the ‘game-changer’ because that comes with a first promotion back to the Championship.” Prince Abdullah, also a Saudi Government minister, keeps a low profile but he tweeted minutes after the final whistle at Sixfields: "Congrats to all SUFC players, C Wilder, the Board, my partner Kevin and above all, to our Great Fans one more step to where we belong – UTB."
Now the real work begins to make up for six lost years and re-establish the club as Premier League contenders. Manager Chris Wilder has the luxury of four full months ahead of him to plan and recruit. The huge challenge ahead kicks-off on August 5 and he is under no illusion.
“It won’t be as (relatively) easy next time as it has been this season,” he said, struggling to regain his composure immediately after making an emotional speech to players and staff in the visitors’ dressing room. Remarkably, in what is a scriptwriter’s fantasy, It was in the home changing room just across the corridor 12 months earlier that he made a similar speech having guided Northampton to the Division Two title. But whatever the financial resources made available, Wilder is again determined to offer value for money. Caught off guard and clearly making reference to the Clough/Adkins era, he added: “The club’s been unbelievably backed in the past six years. I think sometimes Kevin and the Prince have had their pants pulled down. That certainly wasn’t going to happen with me.”
He added: “We’ve got over so many hurdles this year. When we’ve lost (in previous seasons) everybody’s saying well this is it, Sheffield United bottling it again. Not this group of players, not this group of staff. That’s not been mentioned at all. We’ve been positive in everything we’ve done.”
Reflecting on what he found after being appointed as replacement for Nigel Adkins last May, he said: “I’ve taken over a staff I think were nowhere near getting the maximum out of them (the players). But Alan (Knill, Wilder appointed as his assistant), Matt (Prestridge, sports science, who followed Wilder from Sixfields) and Darren Ward (goalkeeping coach), they’ve bought into what we do and they’ve given me everything.
United began their 272nd successive match in League One needing a win to ensure promotion whatever the other results and fell a goal behind just before half time. They recovered in now customary style through striker Leon Clarke, enjoying a mini renaissance after returning from a long term injury problem, and John Fleck. The pair were on the mark in that order in the 2-0 midweek home win against Coventry City.
As it turned out, whatever happened at Sixfields on Saturday didn’t matter. Third-placed Fleetwood lost at Oldham and with defeat any mathematical hope of overhauling the table-topping Blades.
The outcome, however, mattered to top scorer Billy Sharp who's weekend got even better last night as he was voted the EFL League One Player of the Season last night ahead of teammate John Fleck and Scunthorpe's Josh Morris Sharp was dropped to the bench alongside his partner up front James Hanson and influential midfield man Mark Duffy. A surprising decision which Wilder admitted “didn’t work.”
It mattered, too to the travelling fans, limited to 1,400 tickets and those Blades perched on a hill overlooking the ground. Two pitch invasions during the match and wild celebrations afterwards, Sixfields became a temporary Blades stronghold and Sharp was paraded on the shoulders of supporters, some in tears of joy.
“It’s been coming for weeks,” said the Sharp who like his boss and McCabe are all lifelong Blades. The striker started the second half and eight minutes later was joined by Hanson. “I’ve been telling the lads, ‘come on boys, one more win and we’ve done it’. Today was a weird feeling because we were losing and everyone else was losing and we didn’t want to do it this way.
“We wanted to win the game so to get it was absolutely fantastic. I’m so proud of everybody at the club. The gaffer’s done a terrific job. It’s brilliant for the fans because they’ve waited so long.”
Wilder said: “ It’s life-changing. I'm quite emotional about it. We all put our heart and soul into this football club. Everybody connected to the club should be proud of this group of players because they’ve been absolutely outstanding. Today really epitomised where we are. We’ve not played a great first half, had a tough game on Wednesday and we weren't really at it. They scored just before half-time. The reaction from the players was absolutely incredible. I don’t think that four or five would have flattered them, without being disrespectful (to Northampton). They (the home team) could have been two up at half time but second half we absolutely stepped on it and went for the jugular. It’s a fitting way to end the game by winning and getting three points.
Wilder, after acknowledging he got his initial team selection wrong in an effort to freshen up the side, praised his skipper for the way in which he accepted the decision not to be a starter.
“I’ve just said to Billy in front of the players, the captain’s been immense, not just his goals, but his attitude. I’ve said today was a big day for him because I think there will have been a lot of surprise that Billy’s not playing.
“But he’s played a lot of games. We wanted to freshen it up and it didn’t really work, I’ve got to say. I thought it was a big day for him as a captain. His attitude yesterday and his attitude in the dressing room today was absolutely top drawer.
“One of a proper, true captain. He can be as proud as anybody the way in which he has led this group on and off the pitch, in training and then produce and deliver when it’s mattered. He’s just such a good kid as well. You can sit and have a beer with him. He’s just normal, natural and down to earth.”
Now that a return to the Championship is assured, United have the title in their sights. Nine points ahead of second-placed Bolton, who lost at Scunthorpe, they have four matches remaining in which to do it. “The first step, the hardest part’s done to get promotion,” said Sharp. “We’ll celebrate and then we go again on Monday because we really do want the title.”
Wilder added: “This group of players is not going to stop. If we can’t win it’s going to take a good team to beat us. We’re after 100 points, there’s no slacking, We’re after four wins and we’re after putting ourselves in the record books.”
REMAINING MATCHES: Port Vale (a), Bradford City (h), MK Dons (a), Chesterfield (h).