Chesterfield, despite already being relegated, provided far greater resistance than either they or their manager Gary Caldwell could have realistically expected in the bear pit that, under Chris Wilder’s stewardship, is Bramall Lane.
But the champions, aided and abetted by Dan Gardner’s dismissal, came through in the end. Kieron Freeman and Billy Sharp wrote their names on the scoresheet either side of Kristian Dennis’ penalty before Daniel Lafferty pounced after Paul McGinn’s equaliser.
United, as Wilder later conceded, lacked the fluency which has swept them to the title. Predictably, though, they got the job done.
“To captain Sheffield United as a supporter, to have a manager as a fan, it’s unbelievable,” Sharp said. “This is the best moment my career.”
The outcome was still delicately poised when, with a little under half-an-hour-remaining, Gardner saw red after clashing with Sharp. The confrontation, which took place as United prepared to get the action back underway following McGinn’s leveller, was missed by the majority of the crowd. But not by referee John Busby or, for that matter, the person on the receiving end of his slap.
“He was time-wasting, I just let him know I was there,” Sharp explained. “But it didn’t bother me because I’ve had harder ones off my mum.”
Despite emphasising the importance of character, Wilder has been at pains to ensure the calibre of his squad’s play has not gone unnoticed. So it was fitting that Freeman, who despite ostensibly being tasked with stopping rather than scoring goals, laid the foundations for this victory.
The defender was on target for the 11th time since August following a scramble in the box. That statistic, perhaps more than any other, underlines both United’s commitment to attacking football and depth of quality within their ranks.
New faces will arrive over the summer but, on the evidence of their last 46 outings, another major rebuilding exercise is not required. Certainly not in the forward lying positions where, after claiming his 30th league goal of the campaign, Sharp became only the second United player to reach that landmark since WW2.
“He’s a legend of this club,” Sharp, who was presented with a memento by Keith Edwards, the last person to achieve the feat said. “It’s not about me, though. It’s about us.”
Unlike Wilder, Caldwell’s future is far from certain having presided over a miserable three months in Derbyshire.
Both men, however, still wanted to finish their contrasting seasons on a positive note. Having left the division via the back door and under pressure to return at the first attempt, the Scot’s refusal to make wholesale changes ensured United were forced to work hard for the result but also showcased the profligacy which has contributed to Chesterfield’s demise.
Dennis spurned two glorious opportunities during the early skirmishes. Although he later redeemed himself following Simon Moore’s misjudgment, they proved costly misses.
“We didn’t play well but found a way,” Sharp said. “At half-time, the gaffer battered us.”
Leon Clarke sandwiched a fine attempt in between Dennis’ efforts. But it was Freeman who laid the foundations for another yet another success; unleashing a low drive which, after being spilled by Thorsten Stuckmann, was bundled home at the second attempt. The German thwarted Sharp, who later rose imperiously to head home Samir Carruthers’ cross, before Dennis converted following Moore’s foul on Reece Mitchell. United’s captain restored their advantage but, after McGinn had equalised, Gardner’s dismissal titled the odds in United’s favour. Lafferty duly exploited that numerical advantage.
“I got promoted five years ago with Southampton but this tops that,” Sharp said. “I’m happy to do it with these team mates because they’re the best.”