It was a clear, sunny August day in South East London and as the smell of marijuana floated gently across the press box at The Den, Sheffield United’s season went from bad to worse in the blink of an eye.
Shane Ferguson’s cross. Jack O’Connell’s hand. Steve Morison’s emphatic, 89th-minute penalty; 2-1 Millwall. United bottom of the League One table after four games; four games, three defeats, one point.
Hardly the start boyhood Blade Chris Wilder would have dreamed about.
Tonight, just over seven months and 35 league games later, United face Millwall again at Bramall Lane and the atmosphere is somewhat sweeter these days.
Wilder’s Blades are on the cusp of a long-overdue promotion back to the Championship and, although Bolton are breathing down their necks in the race for the League One title, the Blades boss is in understandably relaxed mood.
“I have no qualms with saying where we are,” Wilder said yesterday, in his office at United’s Shirecliffe training complex.
“These aren’t just any other games now; we’ve set it up for them to be big games. We have to go and enjoy them now.
“Would we have wanted to win any of our first four games? Of course we would. A good start is always important so did we want one?
“Of course. Did we deserve one? I think so, because we played okay, apart from a horrible 25 minutes at home to Southend when they jumped all over us and won 3-0.
“We played alright at Millwall back in August, until the last minute and the cross came in... the players care, and they were down. So on the coach home, I got the driver to pull over at an off licence and bought £100 worth of beer.
“And then kept it all at the front! No, seriously, I am old school and could see the lads were down. They care. We had lost in the 93rd minute but had played all right. They were down on that bus and I wanted to change the mood.”
United won their next game, at home to Wilder’s former club Oxford, and the rest is history. That win sparked a 15-match unbeaten run in League One and remarkably, United have lost as many games in their last 35 league games as they did in the first four.
“The lads were really hurting on the bus and what the gaffer did was a great bit of management,” said Billy Sharp, Wilder’s captain and United’s 26-goal top scorer.
“I was surprised and the lads didn’t really know what to do. It could have been a test, I suppose, but I think it was a turning point for our season.
“I then said something to the lads on the bus that they still cane me for now. I will tell you exactly what I said at the end of the season, but it was along the lines of: ‘We need to shake our heads and get some results because if the manager is giving us drinks after a defeat and one point from four games then imagine what he could be like if we some games?’
“The manager is very fair and honest. If you do well for him, he rewards you. He is old school but he has also moved with the times as well. That is a good mix and he is great to work for.”
Sharp is spurred on by memories of last season’s limp end to the season, which saw United finish 11th under Nigel Adkins and receive abuse from the small sections of their support that stayed behind as their ‘lap of honour’ turned into an outpouring of grief and frustration.
“Personally, I was embarrassed at the end of last season when we went out for a lap of honour,” said Sharp, who still bagged 21 goals as United toiled.
“We had to give our thanks to the fans but we had let the club down. This time, the gaffer has made sure we didn’t make the same mistake. He has done an amazing job in a short space of time.
“We had been so disappointing last season. So, when you start like we did, you do think, ‘Not again’. But the manager really has done an unbelievable job, especially after how we started. We were 12 points behind Bolton after six games, or something like that.
“But we have come a long way since then and if we can get over the line, it will be some achievement.”
Wilder, still at Northampton at the time, admits events of that final day last season were relayed to him by friends and admits United was a “split club”.
“The players didn’t want to do it but the fans did, probably for the wrong reasons,” he added.
“It was a divided club and one of the biggest tests we faced was to unite everyone again.”
And if it costs Wilder a few quid at the off-licence along the way, he’ll drink to that if United are celebrating promotion next month.