Sheffield United: 'In, year, out, see ya' - New book brings story of Blades' Premier League promotion season to life

Danny Hall, The Star sports writer, recently released his third book, ‘We’re not going to Wembley’ – charting Sheffield United’s promotion season to the Premier League.

Sunday, 8th September 2019, 2:15 pm
Updated Sunday, 8th September 2019, 3:16 pm
Billy Sharp and Chris Wilder celebrate promotion - photo Richard Markham

The paperback features exclusive contributions from fans and players, plus a foreword from manager Chris Wilder.

In this exclusive extract, Hall takes up the story after a dramatic Easter weekend, featuring two victories for United and two defeats for Leeds United, which swung the promotion race into the Blades’ favour.

Three points at home to relegated Ipswich would all-but see United’s top-flight status secured.

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‘Staff at Bramall Lane remember seeing Wilder jog from his home to Bramall Lane on the morning of the Ipswich game as the tension grew. Scott Hogan netted in the first half to calm United’s nerves a little before Jack O’Connell put the result beyond doubt in the second, sprinting into the box to head home Fleck’s cross seconds after retreating to the dugout for some sustenance.

The noise that greeted O’Connell’s bullet header almost took the roof off Bramall Lane and Sky Sports’ Daniel Mann summed it up perfectly on commentary, as the ball clipped the underside of the bar and nestled in the back of the net. “That’s the one,” Mann said. “Forget the maths… the Premier League beckons for Sheffield United.”

To overtake United now, Leeds would have to win both their remaining games and hope United lost at Stoke on the final day, with a 13-goal swing in Leeds’ favour also needed. It was, as the old phrase goes, all over bar the shouting.

We're not going to Wembley

Wilder, who later helped take down the goalposts long after Bramall Lane had emptied, gathered his players in a huddle at full-time on the pitch and Mark Duffy’s reaction said it all, as he stood with his hands on his head; in apparent disbelief at what had happened.

For others, it was a time to remember those who weren’t there to share in the moment. Blade Adrian Bell’s mother and father passed away within six weeks of each other earlier in the year, closely followed by the death of his Wednesday-supporting brother-in-law David, and one of his biggest regrets about United’s promotion is that he couldn’t wind David up about it.

“I’ve always regarded promotion seasons as special years, with 1990, 2006, and 2017 sitting pretty at the top,” Adrian said, “but I felt somewhat conflicted about 2019.

“At the end of the Ipswich game, the chap who sits in front of me turned around and said ‘it’s been an emotional year for you, Adrian’.

Chris Basham of Sheffield Utd celebrates scoring the winning goal at Leeds United: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“I found myself giving him a big hug and bawling my eyes out. I then proceeded to hug anyone who came near me, and cried all over them as well.

“Then, just as I thought I’d got myself under control, and with the stadium almost empty, I was making my way up the Kop steps and stepped to one side to let a Blade, of a similar age to myself, pass. He was helping his aged father, resplendent in his red and white scarf, down the steps. Off I went again – tears of joy, tears of sadness, tears of pride. It was some day.

“It had quite possibly been the best season ever, and this is arguably the BEST EVER time to be a Blade. But I don’t half miss my dad phoning me up after we’ve lost and launching straight into… ‘were they rubbish?’.”

Wilder also felt emotions of a different kind than a year earlier, when he walked in front of the Kop and wondered if his time as United manager was coming to an end, while Dean Henderson seized the moment in his own way, later ending up on the shoulders of a fan, singing United songs, as thousands of Blades supporters turned London Road into a sea of red, white and Stone Island.

Sheffield United goalkeeper Dean Henderson - pic Danny Hall

One Blade’s evening ended prematurely, though, when he fell through the roof of a bus stop and was rushed to hospital, somehow escaping serious injury.

The atmosphere was a carnival one and United had taken what Wilder would call ‘a huge, giant leap’ towards the Premier League.

But still, the job was not mathematically done and the celebrations couldn’t fully begin just yet.

“We were accused by a couple of players of getting ahead of ourselves earlier in the season, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” defender Baldock said. “The gaffer put his stamp on that comment and I felt it was a bit disrespectful actually, because that’s not us at all. We’re a real level-headed group and we never once got ahead ourselves.

“Even after Ipswich at home, everyone saw the celebrations on the pitch but I can tell you it was a strange atmosphere in the dressing room because we’re so level headed.

“We were 100 per cent promoted at that point because we were never going to lose by enough goals to miss out, but the atmosphere afterwards was like ‘we’ve done it, but we haven’t’.

“It was weird. I spoke to the press afterwards and said the same… we really wanted to celebrate properly, but we couldn’t. I think that showed just how level-headed and humble every single person in the group is.”

Even considering United’s history, though, a turnaround of epic proportions would be required to see them miss out by this stage and O’Connell could also contemplate a summer holiday with his partner, Manchester United captain Alex Greenwood.

By avoiding the play-offs with United, O’Connell and Greenwood could go away before she joined up with Phil Neville’s England squad for the Women’s World Cup.

Greenwood, also a defender by trade, was a key member of the England squad that reached the semi-finals in France and scored a goal, in a bad-tempered clash against Cameroon, that was almost a carbon-copy of O’Connell’s, against Rotherham United earlier in the season.

“Alex has been a massive part of my journey,” said O’Connell, who met fellow Scouser Greenwood when the pair studied at Savio Salesian College in Bootle.

“She has been the one who has been there, through all the ups and downs. And seeing her doing so well motivates me to do the same.”

The defender, and his three older brothers, were raised by mum Sharon, as a single parent in Merseyside, and joined Liverpool County Premier League side REMYCA United at the age of 16.

“I used to play for anyone who’d have me before I got signed by a club, so I’d play on a Saturday morning and then jump in a taxi to play Saturday afternoon, and then play on Sunday as well,” O’Connell said.

“We didn’t grow up with our dad in our lives so it was hard for my mum, with four boys. We all played for the same team but at different times, so I’d be the first and she’d be there for about five hours watching us all.

“It was tough but I think that helped make me the person I am now.”

“When I was a kid, my mates weren’t really allowed out as they were too young, so my mum let me out with my brothers – which meant I’ve always played football with people who are older than me,” added O’Connell, who flew to Madrid to watch Liverpool beat Spurs in the Champions League final in May.

“I think that stood me in good stead as I grew older. I idolised Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher when I was a kid watching Liverpool but I had John Arne Riise’s name on the back of my first shirt, for some reason.

“It’ll be strange going to Anfield and places like that, but an incredible experience for everyone connected with the club.”

After their victory over Ipswich, O’Connell and his United teammates were on the brink of Bramall Lane immortality and, less than 24 hours after their 2-0 win, gathered at the stadium’s International Bar to watch Leeds’ clash with Villa – knowing anything but a win for Marcelo Bielsa’s side meant they were in the Premier League.

Leeds went ahead in controversial fashion, Mateusz Klich rifling home after Villa’s players had stopped and expected Leeds to put the ball out of play following an injury, before Marcelo Bielsa intervened, ordering his side to let Villa walk the ball into his side’s net and level the scores.

Debate about the legitimacy of either goal at Elland Road quickly sparked but United couldn’t have cared less with, as the seconds ticked agonisingly towards full-time, the ultimate prize almost in their grasp.

The final whistle in the game was greeted with a mass explosion of joy, relief and Corona 30 miles down the M1, and then the celebrations really began.

Baldock dodged air conditioning units on the roof as he ended up on Gary Madine’s shoulders; not for the first time, Martin Cranie stripped to his underwear. Duffy, who had been a notable absentee from the gathering after being excused to visit his ill grandad, was showered in beer as soon as he arrived, alongside his partner Alexandra.

Outside, Chris Basham kicked a ball around on the Bramall Lane turf with his son Luke while Henderson – who had earlier appeared more and more nervous as the Leeds game went on, the hood of his Stone Island tracksuit pulled over his head – celebrated by sprinting the length of the pitch.

Striker Clarke, who had done so much to advance United’s promotion cause while on loan at Wigan, joined in the celebrations via FaceTime to David McGoldrick and Wilder and his wife Francesca then went on their own lap of Bramall Lane, hand-in-hand, before enjoying a private moment of reflection on the otherwise-empty Kop.

When the realisation of what he had achieved later sunk in, an emotional Wilder struggled to compose himself in another interview, when he described the day of the Ipswich game as the best of his life – before collecting his thoughts again, and then taking aim at Bamford.

“We’ve had one defeat in 13 and I’ve got muppets from Leeds talking about the pressure being on us,” he said. “Bamford and [Adam] Forshaw and a couple of others. ‘It’s over to you’ and this, that and the other.

“They got beat seven times since Christmas. We’ve been beaten once. We’ve set it up from Christmas to be in the race and we’ve steamrolled it.

“After the international break, two points a game. That’s promotion form right the way through in the pressure part of the season.

“Listen, don’t mention anything about bottle and b******s or about us dipping out.

“Full respect to Marcelo as well for the way they handled that today. Not full respect to Patrick Bamford, obviously.

“But the way we’ve gone about it, I think it has gone under the radar. It’s not got enough credit in terms of media coverage. Everybody wanted Leeds to go up.

“And we’ve just come absolutely steaming through and deserve to play Premier League football. It’ll be a fabulous experience for everyone at our football club.

“We had a lot of pelters for six years when we were in League One and a lot of crap to put up with, for a long long time.

“Now, it’s our time. We’ve got to enjoy it. We’ll enjoy this period and we might take a few thumpings. But everyone said that in the Championship, as well. Two years, in and out.

“In, year, out. See ya.”’

‘We’re not going to Wembley’ is out now, published by Vertical Editions. RRP £11.99. Available at www.verticaleditions.com.