Sheffield United 2-0 Ipswich Town: The Premier League beckons – surely – for Chris Wilder’s boys
For the majority of the week, Chris Wilder had been swatting away questions about automatic promotion with a bat so straight he joked it would shame Geoffrey Boycott.
He can drop the act now. Barring some miraculous results elsewhere, Sheffield United are heading to back to the Premier League.
This evening's victory over Ipswich Town, secured courtesy of Scott Hogan's first-half effort and Jack O'Connell's header, means Wilder's squad are now six points clear of third-placed Leeds with only one match of the season remaining. Marcelo Bielsa's men, who face Aston Villa in their penultimate fixture tomorrow, know their battle to overhaul United is now effectively over. The boys from Bramall Lane, who crucially boast a vastly superior goal difference, will be mathematically out of reach if Villa draw or win at Elland Road in the lunchtime fixture.
Hogan and O'Connell were the ones who found the back of the net but, perhaps fittingly given the qualities which have surely ended United's 12 year absence from the top-flight, this was all about the group.
Mark Duffy weaved his magic, John Egan and Chris Basham went about their business in predictably whole-hearted fashion while George Baldock and Enda Stevens singed the grass along the flanks. And, watching it all unfold from the touchline, was Wilder whose presence has galvanised one of the game's most historic and proudest clubs.
"We took a huge, huge step today," Wilder said, the mask finally slipping. "People have asked questions of us. Those lads have asked them. Most probably, they are now going to have a chance to play in the Premier League."
Don't worry, Chris. They will. The title is also within their grasp too, as they climbed into first although Norwich City will replace them at the summit if they avoid defeat to Blackburn Rovers tonight.
Despite the visitors' miserable record this term, United's preparations for this evening's game had consisted of training and inventing news ways, whenever the media intruded, of avoiding the 'P' word. Wilder used his programme notes to confirm as much, acknowledging that "a few months ago we made a conscious decision to try and go under the radar."
An already difficult task was rendered positively impossible by a sold-out home crowd, which belted out Bramall Lane's favourite anthems with even more gusto that usual as the teams emerged from the tunnel ahead of kick-off. As Wilder had demaned, they played the part of United's 'twelfth man' too, roaring warnings whenever one of their number was in danger of being closed down and turning-up the decibels as United poured forward.
If United had hoped Ipswich would be content to simply play the campaign out, then Paul Lambert's demeanor on the touchline will have been a disappointment. The Scot, appointed in October and preparing for a major rebuilding project behind the scenes at Portman Road, spent the opening period gesticulating wildly whenever his charges were chasing the ball. Wilder cut a much more relaxed figure. But, beneath the serene exterior, his emotions must have been churning.
Fortunately for the 51-year-old, Hogan's 25th minute opener lowered his heart-rate before O'Connell's header, 18 minutes from the end, enabled him to relax completely.
Although Billy Sharp's troublesome hamstring had healed enough to earn him a place on the bench, David McGoldrick and Hogan were once again tasked with spearheading United's attack. If the former's leg had been an inch or two longer, Wilder's men would surely have taken a third minute lead but Basham's cross flew agonisingly in front of the centre-forward.
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McGoldrick, whose contribution to United's success this term has made a mockery of Ipswich's decision to release him last summer, continued to pose a threat. But it was Hogan who went close next, getting a faint but not decisive touch on a John Fleck centre.
Moments later, the two strikers nearly combined themselves. But after outmuscling Toto Nsiala, McGoldrick's centre towards his Republic of Ireland team mate was cut out.
Although Teddy Bishop tested United's nerves with a ghosting run and shot, the momentum remained with United. It told midway through the first-half when Hogan, scoring for the second time since arriving on loan from Aston Villa, glanced O'Connell's pass across goal and inside the far post. It was an equisite finish but some excellent work from Duffy was responsible for starting the move.
Another superb piece of skill, this time in the shape of a perfect McGoldrick pass, nearly delivered a second but Baldock ran out of space as Ipswich's defence scrambled back.
Only the width of the far post prevented Norwood from stretching United's lead in the 49th minute, but his angled free-kick rebounded back off the upright.
But when O'Connell climbed highest to meet Fleck's 72nd minute corner, Ipswich were done for. And barring something ridiculous, United are up.
Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham, Egan, O'Connell, Baldock, Stevens, Norwood, Fleck, Duffy, Hogan (Sharp 63), McGoldrick (Madine 77). Not used: Moore, Lundstram, Dowell, Stearman, Cranie.
Ipswich Town: Gerken, Chambers, Skuse, Jackson (Dozzell 69), Keane (Chalobah 8), Bishop, Downes, Nsiala, Kenlock, Judge, Bree. Not used: Bialkowski, Elder, Emmanuel, El Mizouni, Ndaba.
Referee: Tim Robinson (West Sussex).