DANNY Wilson stood on the hallowed Wembley turf during the trophy presentation with his hands on his face deep in thought.
Once again, the fates didn’t smile on Sheffield United in the play-offs and a summer of change now beckons at Bramall Lane following their heartbreaking, gut-wrenching defeat to Yorkshire neighbours Huddersfield Town on penalties. This was not the way Wilson, the Blades chief, envisaged ‘celebrating’ his one-year anniversary at the helm.
Wilson, a picture of utter dejection after goalkeeper Steve Simonsen blasted over the decisive 22nd penalty of the epic shoot-out, could have a huge rebuilding job on his hands. There will be wholesale personnel alterations as United will have to significantly lower their wage bill after failing to make an instant return to the Championship.
Darius Henderson, Mark Yeates and Jordan Slew were sold following relegation last season to help the club balance its books. More cost-cutting measures are almost guaranteed to happen now.
Simonsen, defender Johannes Ertl and influential midfield duo Lee Williamson and Kevin McDonald and striker James Beattie are among the players out of contract while several clubs are interested in capturing Harry Maguire, Matthew Lowton, Stephen Quinn and Nick Montgomery. It is pretty much a given the squad Wilson will have at his disposal come the start of the 2012/13 season is going to look completely different from the one which featured against Huddersfield.
Attracting stars, capable of leading a second successive promotion challenge, though, will be far from straight forward.
Whereas Huddersfield will lock horns with the likes of Leeds United, Birmingham City and Blackburn Rovers, United face trips to Yeovil Town, Stevenage and Crawley Town.
Wilson will have to use all his powers of persuasion in the transfer market to sell his United vision to potential new recruits in the third tier of English football. On top of that, United, who dined at England’s top table five years ago, will again have to contend with being a prized scalp.
If the final turned out to be Simonsen’s last appearance in a United shirt, he did not deserve to bow out in such an inglorious fashion. He pulled off a series of fine stops to foil Peter Clarke and substitute Alan Lee to keep his side in the hunt before placing his sudden-death penalty high into the stands to send the Huddersfield faithful into raptures.
Football really is a funny old game. Alex Smithies, brought in by the Terriers to replace Worksop-born goalkeeper Ian Bennett, appeared decidedly shaky early on. Nerves are a factor on the big stage and the Huddersfield trainee flapped at crosses and struggled to command his area.
Despite being outshone for long stages by his opposite number, it was Smithies who was the hero from 12 yards, ensuring his place in Huddersfield folklore.
Bennett, ruled out of the clash because of a hand injury sustained in the play-off semi-final triumph over MK Dons, knew last Thursday he would not be fit to start against his former employers.
“It is just one of those things that happens,” he said. “Alex [Smithies] came in and did fantastic to save a couple of penalties and then take one as well which shows some bottle.
“It was an amazing turnaround in the shoot-out. I am gutted for Sheffield United but absolutely ecstatic for Huddersfield.
“We felt what United were feeling last season and it is not nice. Wembley is a place for winners and luckily it was us this time.
“I am so delighted for the chairman, manager and players and hopefully we can do Huddersfield justice next season.”
It is going to take some time for the scars to heal from the club’s latest play-off setback, but all is not lost United fans.
Console yourself in the knowledge that your team scored nearly 100 goals, playing some of the most entertaining, eye-catching football outside the top flight. Console yourself in the knowledge Wilson boasts the managerial acumen to pick the team up and take them forward.
United’s tally of 90 points would have guaranteed automatic promotion to the Championship in nine of the last 10 seasons. The side surpassed all expectations and dropped out of the top-two only after failing to see off Stevenage in the penultimate game of the season.
Bennett, whose contract is set to expire shortly, added: “United will be hurting. They will be feeling exactly the same as what we were last season. Fortunately we have had another season to put it right and hopefully they will bounce back next year.
“They will be gutted and devastated but they have got a good enough squad to bounce back.”
United showed so much dignity at the end. After a team huddle, the players clapped off their supporters who had stayed behind and then walked over to Huddersfield’s end to acknowledge their followers. A marvellous sporting gesture considering the circumstances.
Huddersfield deserved to go up after shading an all-Yorkshire final high on endeavour and hard work in soaring temperatures but low on quality and goal-mouth action. The drama of the shoot-out was out of kilter with what happened in normal and extra time, not that Huddersfield will care one iota.
Wilson’s and United’s aim next year has to be to go up automatically and avoid the end-of-season lottery at all costs.
Wilson has now not tasted victory in five attempts in the play-offs while United have reached four finals in the last 15 years, scoring zilch and recording no wins. So near yet so far.