MANAGER Chris Wilder believes the hard graft starts now as Sheffield United enter 2017 as League One leaders.
The Blades head to Bury this afternoon in top spot after a late winner from Kieron Freeman earned them three points against stubborn Northampton Town at Bramall Lane on Saturday.
The Blades went to the summit after their lunchtime kick-off, and stayed there after Scunthorpe United lost 2-1 at rivals Bolton Wanderers later in the day.
It means United – who were bottom in August after a poor start to the campaign that saw them pick up just one point from their opening four games – have accumulated 50 points from 24 games and are finally living up to their billing as League One heavyweights.
Ahead of today’s trip to Gigg Lane, Wilder believes United will have to work even harder if they want to stay in top spot.
“You are in the game to win football matches, and if you don’t – like the start we had at the start of the season – you find yourself bottom of the division,” said Wilder.
“If you win enough games, you progress and climb the league. Our consistency and performances have been great. The results have been excellent.
“Fifty points from 24 games is a great return, especially after the start we had.
“Now the race is on. The second half of the season will just fly.
“I am sure there are going to be more twists and turns, there are a lot of good teams, but we are a good team and are up there on merit.
“Now the key is to work harder, play better, and show the consistency to stay there.”
Both sides had chances in an opening 45 minutes, Paul Coutts twice going close from long distance.
The Cobblers – Wilder’s former club – showed speed on the counter-attack and Paul Anderson headed wide, and Sam Hoskins went close.
The Blades should have taken the lead on 36 minutes, when Freeman’s low cross evaded the onrushing Leon Clarke – recalled in place of Matt Done – but the striker could not convert from eight yards out.
United were sluggish after the break and Wilder gambled by sending on the attacking trio of Done, Caolan Lavery and Stefan Scougall in search of a breakthrough.
Mark Duffy had an effort blocked, Billy Sharp hit the outside of a post and Lavery went close.
Blades goalkeeper Simon Moore produced a tremendous save – “world-class”, according to team-mate Freeman – to deny Matt Taylor’s 35-yard free-kick, and that proved crucial as United grabbed a late winner.
Coutts crossed from the right and, as Northampton failed to clear the danger, Freeman pounced to blast home before being mobbed by supporters at the front of the Kop.
Scougall struck the crossbar in stoppage-time, but victory was assured.
It was Freeman’s fourth goal of the campaign, and he admitted it was a special moment.
“I can’t describe it, it was such a strange feeling,” said Freeman. “I was in the crowd, had a steward’s hat in my hand, I don’t even know if I got booked for it.
“It was an unreal feeling. You can’t beat that, it’s amazing. We want to be top of the table, but we can only worry about what we do.
“I won’t be catching Sharp any time soon, but it’s nice to score.
“Being a defender, it’s good to win and keep a clean sheet, scoring is just the perfect day.
“You can’t take anything away from our team spirit and the way we play. We have a real togetherness in the squad. Never give up, the gaffer always says, and I think the fans have noticed that.
“We give 100 per cent, which is the least you can do as a footballer, but we are also playing with quality. I always thought we would get a chance, either in the first or 90th minute, with the way we played. We had some great chances and on another day could have won 3-0.”
Not that the 24-year-old defender will be rehearsing any goal celebrations any time soon.
“After the goal I was just straight into the crowd,” he said.
“I don’t know about (rehearsing) a celebration. As soon as I start doing that, I won’t score for a year. I will just take them as they come.”
Sheffield United: Moore, Fleck, O’Connell, Basham (Scougall 69), Sharp, Coutts, Freeman, Ebanks-Landell, Duffy, Lafferty (Done 81), Clarke (Lavery 58). Unused substitutes: Ramsdale, Wright, Brown, Reed.
Northampton: Smith, Buchanan, Anderson (Potter 69), Zakuani, Richards (Beautyman 86), Revell, Hoskins (Iaciofano 90), Phillips, O’Toole, Nyatanga, Taylor. Unused substitutes: Diamond, Gorre, McCourt, Cornell.
Referee: D Drysdale.