Sheffield United: Premier League celebrations prove this team belongs to the people

John Tracey was standing outside the Town Hall, jostling for space in a mass of humanity, and trying to make sense of it all.

By James Shield
Wednesday, 08 May, 2019, 21:52
Sheffield United's Chris Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill: James Wilson/Sportimage

"Amazing," the retired metal worker said. "It's just amazing. To see this, well, you couldn't put a price on it. You can see what it means to everyone here. To everyone involved."

Tracey was among the thousands who turned-out to witness Sheffield United's promotion parade. Twelve years and countless kicks in the teeth since being relegated from the top-flight, his club is back. And back with a mighty, Birra Peroni fuelled, bang.

People had begun congregating in front of the building hours before the bus, ferrying Chris Wilder and his players to their civic reception, was due to arrive. When it did, creeping into view after snaking up Surrey Street, the man responsible for instigating United's recovery was swigging from a bottle of his favourite tipple and conducting the throng's chants.

"We just had to come here," Tracey continued as he soaked-up the atmosphere. "We missed the last home game, when we basically did it, because we were away at a wedding without any access to television or radio. There was a bunch of us Blades fans, all crowded into a room, waiting for updates and looking at our phones. The place erupted when someone came in and told us what had happened. That felt good but not as good as this."

It seems fitting, given the qualities which have catapulted United through the divisions, that they celebrated their latest achievement with the very same people who, Mark Duffy admitted, helped make them such a formidable proposition in the Championship last term. Wilder has some supremely talented footballers at his disposal, as their second-placed finish confirms. But they are a down-to-earth bunch with a connection to the terraces which, the midfielder acknowledged, was absolutely priceless across the course of their history-making campaign.

"I think the fans can relate to us and we can relate to them," Duffy said. "They know we're just normal blokes who happen to play football rather than being up ourselves. I know footballers can get a bad rap at times, for living the high life and stuff like that. But we've all had set backs, the same as anyone else. And we've all fought back from that."

Sheffield United fans gather outside the Town Hall: James Wilson/Sportimage

"It's still not sunk in," Duffy, previously of Prescot Cables and Vauxhall Motors said. "And I don't think it will until the fixtures come out. Lots of us have come up the hard way, through non-league or whatever. So to think we're we're going just seems bizarre. But it shows what can happen if you put your mind to it."

United's resurgence under Wilder has not just been a victory for Bramall Lane. It has struck a blow for the entire city too.

While large sections of the commentariat were fawning over Marcelo Bielsa and hailing his impact at Elland Road, something was stirring in this corner of South Yorkshire. Home of the world's oldest club, the world's first ever cup competition and its first ever set of comprehensive rules, Sheffield can lay claim to being the cradle of the modern game.

With one of its teams again competing at the highest level, this proud sporting metropolis can no longer be ignored. Leeds might be the darling of the media. There is plenty of evidence, albeit circumstantial, that it receives preferential treatment from the county's commercial and political powerbrokers. But, after condemning Bielsa's squad to the play-offs, Sheffield's ostentatious neighbour is not guaranteed a seat at domestic football's most glamorous table next season. In a sense, this was United giving the proverbial finger to everyone who had over-looked or written them off.

Chris Wilder: James Wilson/Sportimage

"Football has done what the politicians have been failing to do and that's bring people together," Magid Magid, the Lord Mayor and United follower, said. "For a city like Sheffield, which is the home of football, now we're going to have a team representing us in the Premier League and doing us proud. A lot of investment will come in, people can watch Match of the Day and root for a Sheffield team. I'd like to think, even if you're a Sheffield Wednesday fan or not a football fan at all, you can still proud of that."

Magid is also a proponent of the theory that Wilder's United reflects the personality of the region as a whole.

"The style of the football, the way they've been playing, they mirror Sheffield's character. They're young, they're vibrant and they do things differently. That's what you have to do if you want to succeed."

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Built on the back of steel and sweat, Sheffield has been forced to reinvent itself since the decline of Britain's heavy industry. But the comradeship born in its forges and foundries still remains today. Brought-up on Arbourthorne, less than four miles away from United's home stadium Bramall Lane, Wilder made a conscious decision to build a side which truly represented the area after being appointed in 2016. It has proved to be an inspired decision with United, then preparing for their sixth season in the third tier, now preparing for life in the Premier League.

Sheffield United captain Billy Sharp: James Wilson/Sportimage

"It must be highly unusual for any big club, to have this trio of guys involved who are Sheffield born and bred," co-owner Kevin McCabe said, referring to Wilder, himself and of course captain Billy Sharp. "There are times when I'm with the other two, when there's a bit of emotion between us, but it's all good. It's something the three Sheffield guys, Chris, Billy and myself, all recognise.

"Sometimes things click and since the three of us came together, it's been a rollercoaster."

McCabe, a veteran of the Carlos Tevez Affair and other painful episodes in United's history, cut a proud and satisfied figure as he watched the party around him unfold.

"Anyone who is unbiased would say we've been blessedly unlucky," he added. "Things have happened that you can't see coming, you can't plan for but you just have to try and cope with. We've had lots of injustice.

"So it's important to say thanks to everyone who has helped make this happen. All the different departments working in tandem. But obviously what happens on the pitch really drives it."

Togetherness, though, does not fully explain why United's remarkable journey under Wilder has been completed in double-quick time. Particularly, despite being handed an improved budget by the board last summer, when you consider he lacked the same financial resources as many of those now trailing in United's slipstream.

Sheffield United celebrate their promotion to the Premier League: James Wilson/Sportimage

"I've not been in a dressing room quite like this one," Oliver Norwood, United's Northern Ireland maestro, said. "We've all got each other's backs. Everyone looks out for everyone else. On top of that, though, there's so much talent. Trust me, there's real ability over there."

Norwood gestured across the function suite where Wilder's charges had gathered before emphasising his point.

"The way we go about things, it looks off the cuff but actually, it's anything but," he continued. "Everyone knows what they're doing, you should see the work that goes into it on the training ground. But it's all come together and being a part of this, seriously, it makes all those hours and sessions worthwhile. Like I say, these boys are a joy to work with. That mix of attitude and ability is very special."

Before he began pressing the flesh with small army of grandees who had gathered to offer their congratulations, Wilder turned and took one last look at the crowd before disappearing indoors. One of the first people to greet him was Tony Currie, officially United's greatest ever player. The former England international, who together with several of his old team mates had been invited back stage, boasts a 51 year association with the club he now calls home. Currie could do magic and, as far as he is concerned, Wilder and his boys can do too.

"It's been a joy to watch," he said. "Win or lose, invariably winning, seeing these lads in action is a real pleasure.

"Not since I came here, in 1968, have I seen a side play football like this one. This one really catches the eye, like I hope we did. I've been confident in them, confident in the manager and confident in the style of play from the very first moment I saw it. I'm convinced we'll stay up as well."

A quality comment from a quality player about this quintessentially Sheffield team.