AFTER 12 months of trials, tribulations and even tragedy, Sheffield United’s annus horribilis finished on a triumphant note against Hartlepool.
Saving their best until last, Danny Wilson’s side signed-off 2011 with a performance which not only surpassed anything else they have achieved throughout a remarkable eight-match winning sequence but the rest of the calendar year as well.
Against opponents who, despite languishing in the lower reaches of the table, had previously been beaten only three times on their travels all term United delivered a display so rich in poise and purpose that those watching from the stands could have been forgiven for thinking they were at Botafogo rather than downtown Bramall Lane.
Wilson, a manager known for his phlegmatic approach, was moved to describe several passages of play as “scintillating” while Chris Porter, who claimed one of three expertly-crafted goals, predicted second-placed United have yet a reach the peak of their powers.
“It’s been a tough year for this club,” he said. “But it couldn’t have ended much better and I’m sure than things can keep moving on from here.
“We’ve definitely got the quality to do that so we’ve got to try and make sure it counts.
“The gaffer here encourages us to try and play football and we did that today. It’s very enjoyable to be part of a team doing that.
“But we’ve also got plenty of experience too and that’s why, first and foremost, we understand that winning is the most important thing.
“If we keep the same attitude then I definitely think there’s only one direction this club can move and that’s forward.”
Even Kevin McCabe, United’s uber-optimistic chairman, admitted the first half of 2011 had been a positively wretched experience during their recent AGM.
But Wilson, who took charge when predecessor Micky Adams failed to avert the threat of
relegation, has transformed both Bramall Lane’s mood and modus operandi since being appointed amid a maelstrom of acrimony in May.
Under his stewardship, a previously fractious club is now united in nature as well as name.
With Ryan Flynn and Ched Evans joining Porter on the scoresheet, the second half has been a much more enjoyable for a board of directors who could now feel compelled to postpone some of the financial cuts they must impose and keep the majority of Wilson’s squad intact throughout the transfer window.
After all, 18 of the 22 victories United have recorded since being beaten at Burnley 52 weeks ago have come under his command.
“Hopefully we can keep stay together,” Porter, starting for the suspended Richard Cresswell, said. “Personally it’s been a frustrating time for me because I’ve been on the bench a fair bit but you have to accept that when a team’s got a lot of quality at its disposal then everyone is going to have a spell out.”
Wilson, who previously guided Hartlepool to promotion, warned before kick-off the visitors possessed enough ability within their ranks to deal his hopes of repeating the trick in South Yorkshire a severe blow.
Beatable at home, they have proved impressively durable on their travels and, with new manager Neale Cooper making his first appearance in the dug-out, some observers had predicted an upset could be on the cards.
How wrong they were.
United passed the ball with speed and precision, and Hartlepool simply had no answer to their movement once Flynn, a constant threat along the flanks, had fired the hosts into an early lead with a perfectly-placed drive.
Evans, whose persistence had created the opening, netted his 14th of the campaign in equally immaculate fashion.
But not before Porter, dovetailing perfectly with the Wales international, had applied the finishing touches to a sumptuous interchange involving his fellow centre-forward, Flynn and midfielder Michael Doyle.
Peter Hartley’s effort for Hartlepool came too late to have any bearing on the contest.
“Ched is a class act and because of that he’s easy to play alongside,” said Porter.