Of all the high points during Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United reign, there is one that sticks out above all for those of a red and white persuasion in the Steel City.
Just mere mention of the date brings the memories back... September 24, 2017. The day after Wilder turned 50, and a weekend he’ll never forget.
The Sunday saw the first derby since 2012, at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough. United raced into a two-goal lead, but Gary Hooper and Lucas Joao dragged Wednesday level.
But not for long.
Mark Duffy then wrote his name in United folklore, and his chapter is a key part of Star sportswriter Danny Hall’s new book, ‘He’s one of our own’ - the story of Wilder’s Blades revolution.
Published by Vertical Editions, it’s released on September 8 but is being exclusively serialised in The Star today.
The extract picks up when Wednesday's Joao thundered home to make it 2-2, after United had been 2-0 ahead...
A photographer behind Blackman’s goal almost forgot to take the shot of the goalscorer as he celebrated and by this point, Hillsborough was rocking - literally.
From the press seats in Wednesday’s South Stand, the foundations of the ground were shaking as Owls fans in all four stands of the ground bounced to their signature, anti-Blades song. Wilder, and more than one Blades player, admitted they had never heard an atmosphere like it. “At that point,” Wilder admitted, “I bet a lot of our fans were thinking ‘here we go again’.”
What happened next will go down in United folklore.
With that Joao strike, United were on the ropes and Wednesday could sense blood. But so, it transpired, could Duffy, who received a header from Basham, laid it off to Clarke and sprinted in behind van Aken. Clarke’s clipped ball was inch-perfect but as Duffy faced the Dutchman almost on the angle of the penalty area, there seemed little danger.
Hillsborough was still rocking. Duffy feinted to shoot and cut inside on his left foot, and the bouncing was a little quieter. As Duffy chopped back onto his right foot, smashed the ball past Westwood from a tight angle and left van Aken with his shirt over his head, it had stopped. Almost mid-bounce.
For what seemed like an eternity, Hillsborough fell silent; both sets of fans in shock at what they had witnessed. Then, the only noise came from the top tier of the Leppings Lane end as Duffy first sprinted to the corner flag to celebrate, then ran the length of the United fans to soaking up their celebrations.
Just one minute and 47 seconds after Joao had dragged Wednesday level, Duffy had put United ahead again. If ever a passage of play typified a Wilder side, it was surely this one.
Duffy smiled afterwards that if he could bottle and sell the feeling he experienced for that 30 seconds or so, he’d be a rich man. But it got even better for United when Leon Clarke added a second, and United’s fourth, 13 minutes from time after Lees and van Aken again failed to cover themselves in glory. It became the first time in the club’s history that United had scored four goals at Hillsborough and the closing minutes, as the home stands emptied rapidly, became an elongated celebration.
“I think it summed us up as a team,” Wilder said. “We’re not a team that has a lot of fighting qualities and can’t play, but we’re also not a team that will get bullied. We have mental, physical, tactical and technical qualities. Everyone’s looking for that complete package to be successful. We had a bottom six budget in the division and were tipped by the bookies to finish 17th or 18th, and our owners would have been delighted with that.
"Here we were, at a team paying £30,000 and £40,000 a week to their strikers, and a lad we got for free from Birmingham, who had played for Vauxhall Motors and Prescot Cables, smacked one in. Incredible”
Aside from the obvious in a game against Wednesday, there was extra motivation for Wilder to prove a point. When he took over at United he was pointed in the direction of a demeaning message from an Owls fan, along the lines of: ‘Our manager is Champions League while United have got one out of the Meadowhall Sunday League’.
The author has probably long forgotten writing it now, but Wilder did not; for him, it was all fuel for the fire. “We should have been out of sight at half-time,” Wilder said, “but we weren’t naive enough to think there wouldn’t be a bit of pride from the Wednesday players just because they were these superstars on big money.
"Duffy’s big moment will be talked about forever, I should imagine and from then on, I thought we were comfortable. My players showed what good players they are individually and how good a team we are collectively. You’re always going to get your nugget supporters who haven’t got a clue about football, but deep down I think the majority of Wednesday fans will look back and say ‘they’re not a bad side, them’.
"And what better stage to show it than a Sheffield Derby?”
◘ This extract is from 'He's one of our own', the story of Chris Wilder's Sheffield United revolution, by Danny Hall. Pre-order your copy at www.bladesbook.co.uk.