POINTS mean prizes and 100 of them delivered a large silver pot amid amazing scenes at Bramall Lane.
Celebrating Sheffield United fans in the 30,000 crowd who were present at the final match of last season, 51 weeks earlier, had to pinch themselves. Was this really happening?
A return to the Championship confirmed three weeks ago at Northampton. Clinching the League One title followed six days later at Port Vale. Since then Blades supporters have been in permanent party mode. A pitch invasion at home to Bradford. Seven thousand, limited only by ticket restrictions, taking those celebrations on the road to MK Dons.
But only the scenes which followed Sunday’s 3-2 home win against already relegated Chesterfield, brought home the magnitude of what manager Chris Wilder and his staff have achieved in less than a year. Quite simply it is truly remarkable.
Only Paul Coutts, Chris Basham and Billy Sharp remained in Sunday’s starting line-up from the team which finished a miserable season under former boss Nigel Adkins. Add to that goalkeeper George Long and Matt Done who were on Wilder’s bench.
They won’t have forgotten the embarrassing trudge around Bramall Lane in what was described as a ‘lap of appreciation’ before of a handful of fans. Almost all of the 21,445 crowd which witnessed a 2-0 home defeat by Scunthorpe – a match which summed up all that was wrong with the Adkins regime and ended with the manager outrageously laying some of the blame for a dreadful season on supporters – had left immediately in disgust. United had just registered their lowest league finish for 33 years, 11th in the third tier. Sixty-six points and a goal difference of just plus five.
If anyone had told you then that in just under 12 months’ time the Blades would be top of the league boasting 30 wins, just six defeats, 92 goals (goal difference plus 45) and 100 points, 14 points clear of second-placed Bolton Wanderers and 18 ahead of the nearest play-off spot, they would have been taken away in a straight-jacket.
But that is exactly what has happened and one man, Wilder, the United fan, former ball boy, player and now manager, is totally responsible for the transformation.
“We’re all together,” he said. “We’ve shown togetherness on the pitch and off the pitch. And the supporters have bought into that. When everyone is together, this is a powerful football club. Even today, it epitomised what we’re about. Chesterfield deserved something. But we dug it out.”
Scenes at the Lane were highly emotional as United were presented with the League One trophy and went on a lap of honour that will live in the memories of all whom witnessed it. Those emotions finally got the better of club captain Sharp, another lifelong Blades, who was in tears in the tunnel as he waited to make a grand entrance before the party began.
Interestingly it was Sharp, not Wilder, who was last man out to a podium set up on the pitch. A grand entrance the like of which the player could not have even dreamed of as boy, which demonstrated to the end the manager’s man management skills.
The striker had completed United’s fairytale finish by claiming his 30th goal of the season, heading home substitute Sammi Carruther’s pin-point cross. Sharp, top scorer for a second successive season, is only the second United player to hit 30 goals or more since the Second World War, the first being Keith Edwards in 1984.
“It's a dream to be promoted but to be champions and score 30 goals, it couldn't have gone any better,” said Sharp. “I’ve been a Sheffield United fan all my life and I'm so proud to be captain.
“It's the highlight of my career without doubt and I'll be lucky to have another season like this. I was holding back the tears walking out for the trophy. I’m one of these fans.”
Stepping out onto a surface which looked as good on the last day of the season as it did on the first, was yet another Blade, co-owner Kevin McCabe. He proudly carried the trophy with business partner Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud before the players emerged.
For McCabe who has been in for the long haul, it was a moment to treasure and no-one will be more appreciative than him for the way in which Wilder has dug the club out of a large hole and placed it upon a pedestal.
Now he will be hoping that the Saudi prince, who bought 50 per cent of United for £1 in 2013, delivers on his promise to provide significant – “game-changing” was how McCabe described it – funding once Championship football was returned.
The prince, an avid follower of the Premier League, would dearly like to be a part of it. He has the opportunity to do just that and if the spectacle he saw at an almost packed house didn’t inspire him, nothing will.
Money, of course, is not an answer in itself to further progress. But it is the difference between mounting a serious challenge to reach football’s top flight rather than ‘having a good go at it.’
For Wilder that is a challenge, too. In his 17-year managerial career he’s never had any cash to speak of. Having won the trust of his bosses and knowing the kind of man he is, however, making sizeable funds available if and when he needs them makes the risk a tad easier.
Wilder will be making a difficult announcement this week when some members of United’s triumphant squad will learn they are no longer part of the plan going forward.
He has also suggested rapid movement in the transfer market. Former striker Ched Evans, reported to have already passed a medical in a move from Chesterfield, is expected to be the first new, if familiar, name to arrive this week for what could turn out to be a bargain £500,000.
An open-top bus parade to the Town Hall and a civic reception is next on the agenda for United’s triumphant squad.
For manager Wilder, however, next season has already begun. It’s a sobering thought that once the dust has settled, the Blades are only back to where they were at the end of 2010- 2011. So many wasted, costly and, until recently, unproductive years.
The big difference is, however, that 276 League One matches later, they return in far better shape and a good deal wiser for the experience. Optimism has never been higher in my recollections which began in the days of Currie and Woodward.
United could be set for a rude awakening, but somehow I don't think so.