CELEBRATORY pitch invasions are usually reserved for promotion parties or reaching Wembley.
Not a routine league game on the final Saturday before Christmas.
Twenty five years ago today, however, Sheffield United fans poured on to the Bramall Lane turf in ebullient mood after seeing their side hit back from 2-1 down to prevail in a five-goal thriller against Nottingham Forest.
This, though, was not why hundreds of supporters mobbed their team at the final whistle.
Instead, it was the fact that the worst start to a top-flight season in the history of English football had just been ended by a first win at the 17th attempt.
Brian Deane scored the winner that day with a trademark pinpoint header as a team that had already been read its last relegation rites fashioned a lifeline that would subsequently be taken in quite spectacular fashion.
“What a moment that goal was against Forest,” recalled the 47-year-old former striker when speaking to The Yorkshire Post this week. “It was in front of the Kop and the relief was huge. The fans were celebrating like mad at the final whistle.
“So were we, to be fair. But there was also a sense of determination among the lads that the win over Forest would only be the start.
“We knew we could get out of trouble. It wasn’t going to be easy, but we had full belief that we could get safe once we had that first win. Which, of course, we did.”
United had arrived in the old First Division the previous August having won back-to-back promotions under Dave Bassett.
Life back among the elite after a 14-year absence was expected to be tough for a club whose budget was limited in the days before Sky Sports had started pumping millions into the game’s coffers.
So it proved, as those first 16 games brought just four draws and what seemed to be an immediate return ticket back to the second tier. Ahead of Forest’s visit to the Lane on December 22, 1990, the rock bottom Blades were eight points adrift of nearest rival QPR and, given their awful goal difference, effectively 12 points from safety.
Ian Bryson gave the home side the lead early in the second half before two sublime strikes from Roy Keane and Stuart Pearce looked to have condemned United to yet another loss.
Then, though, two brilliant right-wing crosses from Carl Bradshaw allowed Bryson to equalise and then Deane put the Blades in front.
The celebratory pitch invasion at the final whistle lent proceedings a surreal feel.
“That win against Forest changed everything,” recalled Deane. “To the outside, Division One must have looked like a step too far in terms after those two promotions.
“But we never stopped believing, even when that first win wouldn’t come. We’d be playing well but then a mistake would cost us. The key, though, was we were all in it together and there was no blame culture.
“We scored goals together and conceded goals together. Crucially, the fans also stuck with us. We had taken the crowd on a great journey over the previous two years and I think they appreciated it. They knew we had been in Division Three a couple of years earlier.
“They never turned on us, not once, and that played a massive part. We had gone all those games without a win and yet the fans didn’t put us under any pressure.”
Buoyed by beating Forest, a second victory of the campaign followed four days later at Luton Town. Deane again got the winner, just as he did on New Year’s Day as QPR were beaten 1-0 at the Lane.
Bassett’s men were still at the foot of the table but, suddenly, their rivals were within touching distance. A glorious seven-game winning run that stretched from late January into mid-March ultimately proved the difference and safety was, eventually, assured with three games to spare.
It represented a quite remarkable turnaround – had the season started with the win over Forest, the Blades would have finished second – and one Deane puts down to Bassett being very different to the one-dimensional character as he is often portrayed.
“Dave has been accused of this and that over the years,” said the former striker. “And his style of football was always coming in for criticism.
“But what I can say is that he was one of the most forward thinking managers of that era.
“While we were struggling in that first season after winning promotion, behind the scenes we were way ahead of everyone else.
“Different methods and techniques were used in training, we also had a psychologist. There was a guy who came in to advise us on nutrition, too, along with strength conditioning.
“Not many clubs had a fitness trainer but Ed Baranowski came in a couple of times per week and we quickly saw the benefits.
“From my point of view, I was quite a long and gangly player. But, by developing my body, I became more of an athlete.
“Dave being willing to try new ideas is why Sheffield United stayed up after such a bad start that year. We scored more goals in the last 10 minutes than anyone else, as teams just couldn’t cope with our fitness.
“No one gave us a chance at Christmas and yet we turned it round.”