Stoke City 2-2 Sheffield United: After a draw at the bet365 Stadium, now it’s destination Premier League
It was probably fitting, given the hurdles they have overcome in the Championship this season, that the curtain came down on Sheffield United's promotion winning season at the bet365 Stadium.
Opponents Stoke City, who 12 months ago were still in the Premier League themselves, named £60m worth of talent in their starting eleven and a further £31m on the bench. Yet despite spending significantly less - Chris Wilder's most expensive ever signing cost a third of Benik Afobe - it was the visitors who finished the game preparing for the top-flight.
Discovering innovative new ways of bridging that financial chasm, even turning his club's judiciousness into a strength, is a trick Wilder must perform with even greater aplomb next term when United will be rubbing shoulders with some of the richest and most fashionable names in the business. But as Enda Stevens and Kieran Dowell demonstrated, after Sam Vokes and Ryan Shawcross had twice edged Stoke ahead, they possess both the pride and the ability to cause problems at the highest level.
"We still had words at half-time," Wilder said, even though his side were already assured of at least second place. "But I was delighted with the way we turned things around against some very, very good players.
"Throughout the year, we've left some very big and powerful clubs trailing in our wake."
If Stoke were still in any doubt about why their astronomical investment has delivered so little, this fixture laid bare the reasons why. United were sharper, smarter and noticeably more purposeful for long periods before nearly being undone by their own carelessness.
It confirmed suspicions that, while there is no shortage of talent at Nathan Jones' disposal, the attitude and commitment of some of his players has left much to be desired. Peter Etobo, Stoke's Nigerian midfielder, did his best to lift the tempo before Vokes opened the scoring in fortuitous and, given the complexities of the offside law, controversial circumstances. But you still got the sense that, if their hopes of going up had still hinged upon the outcome, United would have grabbed the contest tightly by the throat.
Wilder's decision to introduce both John Lundstram and Dowell during the interval suggested he thought exactly the same too. Indeed, the greater industry and intensity they introduced paid an immediate dividend when Dowell, on loan from Everton, claimed his second since leaving the North-West in January. The 21-year-old provided the assist for Stevens' effort too, after Ryan Shawcross had profited from another lapse in concentration. Together with John Fleck and the ever dependable Billy Sharp, Dowell was United's most effective performers on what could be his farewell appearance.
"A couple of things didn't go for us, including a great save from Ryan," Wilder continued, highlighting the Stoke captain's handball on the line to prevent Sharp from scoring. "But I've got great respect for Ryan, who came in halfway through the season. He's been a class act today and his club have been a class act too with how they've treated us, because it's not always easy when someone comes in to your own backyard with something to celebrate."
Only three points behind leaders Norwich City ahead of kick-off and boasting a superior goal difference, there was never any danger of Wilder allowing sentiment to decide his selections in Staffordshire. Making only one change to the starting eleven which had effectively sealed United's top-flight status eight days earlier, United, with captain Billy Sharp preferred in attack to Scott Hogan, dominated possession throughout the opening exchanges before Vokes dashed their hopes of a fourth consecutive clean sheet. The Wales international, who made six outings for United earlier in his career, appeared to be yards offside when the ball made its way into Dean Henderson's box. But the assistant referee's flag stayed down, Jack O'Connell failed to clear and Vokes, after using his chest to control, drove it past the 22-year-old and inside the far post.
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Only the width of an upright prevented Sharp from equalising at the other end of the pitch following Enda Stevens' driving run. Moments later, as an otherwise unexceptional half suddenly burst into life, Tom Ince also struck the woodwork with an angled shot before Dowell levelled with almost his first touch of the afternoon.
The youngster, possibly pulling on a United jersey for the final time before returning to Goodison Park, showcased his technique by working Fleck's pass onto his favoured foot before firing beyond Jack Butland. But it was the Scot's tenacity, driving through two lines of defenders, which truly did the damage.
Stoke's second, which saw Shawcross tap home Ince's corner, was also the result of United's sloppiness rather than anything wonderful by the hosts. But they drew level once again, when Dowell punched a hole in Stoke's lines before Stevens, receiving his pass, beat Butland with an excellent low finish.
"We came in through the front door and we left through the front door," Wilder said. "That's what we're all about."
Stoke City: Butland, Bauer, Allen, Ince (Bojan 82), Etebo, Vokes, McClean, Batth, Martins Indi (Afobe 59), Shawcross, Woods (Adam 90). Not used: Federici, Williams, Diouf, Verlinden.
Sheffield United: Henderson, O'Connell, Egan, Basham (Madine 73), Baldock, Stevens, Norwood (Lundstram 46), Fleck, Duffy (Dowell 46), Sharp, McGoldrick. Not used: Moore, Hogan, Stearman, Cranie.
Referee: Geoff Eltringham (County Durham).
Highlight: With their place in the Premier League already guaranteed, it was no surprise that Sheffield United lacked their usual drive and attention to detail. But John Fleck's performance, combined with an equally determined shift from substitute Kieran Dowell, kept driving Chris Wilder's team forward and ensured two pieces of careless defending did not cost them three points.