It speaks volumes about the progress Sheffield United have made in recent months that, even though less than two minutes remained when Kieron Freeman scored the goal which propelled them to the top of League One, there was still a sense of inevitability about the final result.
Chris Wilder, who against all odds led Northampton Town to promotion last season, inherited a club which had just drifted its way through an entire campaign when he took charge at Bramall Lane last summer. But, as the scenes which greeted the defender’s late strike confirmed, this sleeping giant is no longer in a coma
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Freeman admitted after ensuring a second half of relentless United pressure received maximum reward. “To do that, late on in front of The Kop, is something else.
“The gaffer always tells us to keep on believing and to never, ever, give up. That’s something he’s drilled into us since the very first day he came in and, when you come through in those circumstances, you can see the message is getting across.”
At times, particularly when Northampton retreated deeper and deeper after the break, it was possible to mistake this fixture for a training-ground drill of attack versus defence. Nevertheless the visitors, now managed by former United defender Robert Page, were only a superb save away from taking a shock lead when Matt Taylor mustered their only shot on target from a long-range set-piece. But Simon Moore, defying the laws of gravity and physics, clawed the ball away to safety. Then, soon after, Freeman pounced.
“Credit to Simon because that was a massive moment,” the defender said. “And it shouldn’t go unmentioned or unnoticed.”
Paul Coutts, who provided the cross for Freeman to score, had earlier twice gone close while Billy Sharp saw an overhead kick scrambled clear before hitting the post. Northampton, now 15th, traded blows during the opening exchanges. But, after John Fleck made an important interception to deny Sam Hoskins a clear sight of goal, seemed content to drop further and further back, an error of judgement which Freeman, when Lewin Nyatanga failed to clear Coutts’ low centre, was happy to punish.
“We are where we want to be now but we haven’t achieved anything yet,” he admitted. “And there’s no way the staff here will let us take our foot of the gas.”
A TERRIFIC 12 MONTHS
Wilder was officially unveiled as the English Football League’s Manager of the Year before kick-off, a richly-deserved honour which, fittingly, was confirmed as he prepared to lead United into battle against the team he helped save from oblivion last term. Under the 49-year-old’s stewardship, Northampton overcame a crippling financial crisis to lift the League Two title following a remarkable 24 match unbeaten run.
Having overcome a chequered start to his Blades reign - United were bottom of the table after failing to win any of their opening four games - this was the 47th victory of what has been a remarkable 12 months for Wilder, his assistant, Alan Knill and head of sports science Matt Prestridge who also made the journey from Sixfields to South Yorkshire in May.
Northampton, who, despite offering precious little going forward, fought like tigers to try to keep their opponents out, displayed many of the qualities Wilder instilled in them during his 126 matches there in charge.
Having performed the same trick after being handed the task of resuscitating United, he said: “I’ll accept the honour but only on behalf of those around me. There are great people at Northampton and that’s why I went over to acknowledge them. But, as everybody knows, this is my home. This, Sheffield United, is my club.”
WHAT MAKES THIS TEAM TICK
Relentless is perhaps the best way to describe United this season, both in front of goal - they have now scored 41 times in 16 outings - and in terms of their psychological approach. Patience and perseverance were the keys to success against a Northampton side which, at one stage, seemed destined to claim a point.
Rejuvenating players disregarded by previous regimes, has been one of Wilder’s greatest triumphs since replacing Nigel Adkins. One of those, Freeman, repaid his faith here after combining with another, Coutts.
“I’ve been here a while now,” Freeman, signed from Derby County in January last year, said. “But it’s only now that I’m realising what it means to represent this great club. You can see how much it means to the fans, just how important United is, and that really drives you on. Understanding that comes from the gaffer and also the skipper (Sharp).”
Despite finishing last season on loan at Portsmouth and being made available for transfer following Wilder’s arrival, Freeman has emerged as a vital cog in the United machine.
After wrestling a starting jersey from John Brayford and no long playing with a ‘For Sale’ sign around his neck, the 24-year-old’s game is perfectly suited to the 3-5-2 system Wilder implemented in August. Defensively sound, Freeman also proved he is a threat going forward.
“My celebration does need work,” he said. “I lost it completely and ended up in the crowd cuddling a steward. I think at one point I was wearing his hat.”
United, a point ahead of second-placed Bolton, enjoyed an overwhelming superiority in terms of possession and field position against Northampton. Wilder overloaded their attacking options during the closing stages and said: “It’s all about risk and reward. That’s the way we look at it.”