One year on: The real story behind the picture that captured Sheffield United's joy after sealing promotion to the Premier League
First it was the hum. The low, excitable murmuring that always echoes around a room where something special, something very special indeed, is about to happen.
Then it was the cacophony, when the moment finally arrived and Sheffield United’s players began celebrating promotion, which reminded Simon Bellis he was in the company of legends.
“Everything was pretty relaxed to begin with,” he says, remembering what it was like to be in the squad’s company when they achieved their Premier League dream. “But it certainly didn’t finish like that. The whole place went crazy. People were dancing around the room, shouting, cheering and drinks were flying everywhere.”
Bellis was on the guest list, exactly a year ago tomorrow, for an event which has gone down in Bramall Lane history.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Chris Wilder’s squad had beaten Ipswich. So, gathering to watch Leeds face Aston Villa on television, they knew Marcelo Bielsa’s side had to win to keep the race for second place alive.
Bellis was there in his capacity as United’s official photographer; a role which sees him follow the club up and down the country.
The nature of his job, coupled with the access, meant he was not only professionally attached to many of those huddled around the big screen which loomed over the stadium’s International Bar. Bellis felt their tension, their sense of anticipation, on a personal level too.
What followed over the course of the next two hours or so has become the stuff of legend. When Mateusz Klich put Leeds in front with only 18 minutes remaining, United’s party appeared to be on hold. But with Villa’s Jonathan Kodjia being injured in the build-up, Bielsa instructed his team to let their opponents score.
Despite being reduced to 10 men following Anwar El Ghazi’s controversial dismissal, the visitors held on to claim a draw at Elland Road. Cue, 40 miles to the south, total pandemonium.
“It was a privilege to be there,” Bellis says, describing the scenes which unfolded, when the final whistle blew. “Because essentially, you knew you’d been allowed to attend a very private party and you were witnessing something that meant so much to so many hard-working people.
“During the final few seconds of the game up there at Leeds, you really did begin to get a proper sense of that. There was a growing noise, getting louder and louder as it reached a crescendo.
“People began rattling things on tables as the clock counted down and then there was just this huge eruption.”
Everyone fortunate enough to be there in person will have their own favourite story from that Sunday afternoon. Be it the sight of the usually sober Richard Stearman drunkenly creating a new verb for the English language, Gary Madine plying coaching staff with Jagerbombs as he embarked on “Operation Contract” or listening to Leon Clarke being serenaded by his captain Billy Sharp after joining in the celebrations via telephone.
Protocol had prevented the centre-forward from actually attending the event because he was on loan at Wigan.
Bellis’ most treasured memory explains how the picture which captured the emotion and the sheer elation of the occasion came into being. Standing in the shadows, as Stearman prepared to get ‘stearsed’, he began trying to predict how the drama might unfold.
“For the last few minutes of the Leeds match, I started thinking ‘Where are they going to face?, ‘Where are they going to start jumping around?’ and stuff like that. ‘Am I in the right spot to get all this on camera?’
“As usual, I got it completely wrong but fortunately I’ve got bit of weight behind me so when the whole thing went up, I was able to muscle myself into position.
“To be perfectly honest, at times like that you’re not that bothered about taking anything pretty. The usual rules, the usual techniques you apply to get a really nice shot, they go out of the window.
“You just want ‘the moment’ and to try and record it on film. So really, you just get yourself as close as you can and start snapping away. It’s not like it usually is. You can’t try and control anything or set something up.
“You can’t try and get people, even for a second, to try and face you.”
Bellis, who had spent the past eight months chronicling United’s march out of the Championship, admits to being overcome by a deep sense of satisfaction as well as lager and liqueur when their top-flight status was confirmed.
A regular visitor the club’s training complex, where is tasked with providing images for both its matchday programmes and the regional media, he witnessed the sacrifices Wilder’s charges, many of whom were veterans of United’s 2017 League One title winning squad, made in order to achieve their ambitions.
Particularly during what the manager had labelled “The big push”; a run of eight games, following March’s victory at Leeds, which saw United win four, draw three and lose just once to power across the finishing line.
“I’m fortunate, really fortunate, because I get to see how much work and hard graft the lads put in,” Bellis says.
“They don’t just turn up and hour before a game on a Saturday afternoon or a Tuesday night, kick a ball about for a bit, and then go home. The effort they’d put in to making sure the system they played - the marauding centre-halves everyone still talks about - really worked was immense.
“It’s always a pleasure being on site there, as it were, even though I always try and stay in the background because that way I think you get better shots.
“I try and capture people off guard because, that way, I think you get them more natural and relaxed. I prefer for them not to know I’m even there.”
“What made it even more special, when the players, the manager and all the staff around them realised they were definitely up, was thinking about where a lot of them had come from,” Bellis continues.
“So many of them had started out or had to work their way back up from the lower divisions. They hadn’t had anything handed to them on a plate. They’d had to work so hard for it.”
For Wilder, like Sharp a lifelong United fan, the scoreline in West Yorkshire marked the culmination of a similar journey. Previously of Alfreton, Halifax, Oxford and Northampton Town, he inherited a squad which had just finished mid-table in the third tier after being appointed three years earlier.
“As a professional photographer, I’ve been lucky enough to cover World Cups and European Championships,” Bellis says. “But some of my favourite times were covering United in League One.
“Why? Because the club had really struggled the season before and people were so miserable. They were miserable and sad because they loved it and they cared.
“Then, Chris came in and he brought such a connection with the supporters. That, even more than the wins that just seemed to keep on coming, is probably the thing that sticks with me the most from those days.”
“I don’t have a favourite player to photograph,” he adds. “How could I say that?
“But I did really enjoying taking pictures of Billy that year, because he just kept on scoring and every time he tucked one away, he seemed to know exactly where I was sat in the ground and he’d come running over so I could get a really nice shot. Well, that’s what it felt like to me anyway.”
Twelve months on and Bellis is now charting United’s rise up the Premier League table where, before competition was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, they were positioned in seventh.
Some of those responsible for helping them get there in the first place later moved on. But thanks to Bellis’ eye for detail, Stearman, Madine and others were all able to depart clutching a photographic reminder of their achievement.
“It wasn’t my moment, it was their moment,” insists Bellis. And he captured it perfectly.