WHEN it comes to promotion venues, the Midlands has been pretty good to Sheffield United over the years.
Having been denied the chance to book a passage back to the Championship in front of around 24,000 expectant Unitedites at Bramall Lane last night – after third-placed Fleetwood matched the Blades’ victory – all roads now lead to Chris Wilder’s former club Northampton this weekend.
Saturday will be almost exactly a year to the day since Wilder clinched promotion for the Cobblers to League One – and another ‘going up’ Sixfields party to the level above with his beloved Blades will be heralded if his side take three points – regardless of Fleetwood’s result at Oldham.
The bubbly may have remained on ice last night, but it is still chilling rather nicely for the Blades, who went up in successive seasons at Wolverhampton and Leicester in 1989 and 1990 respectively.
Last night was far from straight-forward before second-half goals from Leon Clarke and John Fleck – both former Sky Blues players – broke the collective back of the visitors.
But after performing their side of the bargain – eventually – another of Wilder’s former clubs, Oxford, could not secure a notable deed for their old manager, as Fleetwood’s 3-1 triumph kept the League One leaders’ celebrations on hold on a night when kick-off was delayed for 15 minutes.
Despite developments elsewhere, chants of ‘We’re going to win the league’ that rang out after the Blades went 2-0 ahead spoke of a fanbase’s belief that not only promotion will be claimed, but also a title for the first time since 1982. The Blades’ winning mentality is such that they wrapped up the points and a 25th win of a memorable season despite being comfortably below their best, but a couple of moments of sweet incision proved enough to sink the Sky Blues.
Backed by a vast sky blue army of 43,000 supporters who colonized a fair portion of Wembley Stadium on Sunday, Coventry’s players found themselves overwhelmingly outnumbered on a raucous red and white occasion in South Yorkshire three days on.
The mood among the home crowd was wholly expectant with the decibels cranked up ahead of kick-off, with just a very small smattering of hardy souls populating the away section. Safe in the knowledge that the home support would do their bit, Wilder implored his charged-up side to “breathe down the necks” of their Sky Blue counterparts with all the ferocity that marked last week’s fine victory over Millwall.
But after sampling a rare taste of the big-time atmosphere at the home of football, the Sky Blues looked eager for a refill – with no discernible hangover evident from their Checkatrade Trophy exploits.
It did not yield much by way of clear-cut chances, but neither did they look a side in a hopeless-looking position at the foot of the table and without an away league win since October 10.
The Blades had the better of the opportunities to hand, but they had to eke them out against spirited visitors, although the impression remained that one goal would perhaps be enough to break Coventry’s organisational resolve, which has been flimsy for most of 2016-17.
A nervy early backpass from Jack O’Connell almost caught out Simon Moore, but the Blades steadied themselves and went close to a breakthrough twice in quick succession.
On sporadic occasions, Coventry threatened on the break, but the action was mainly at the other end.
It plainly looked a night for patience and persistence, but Wilder had clearly seen enough after a slow start to the second period and made a positive double change with Clarke and Samir Carruthers thrown on in an attempt to inject some urgency.
An offside flag raised against Clarke soon cut short the celebrations of the hitherto quiet Billy Sharp after he slotted home before Coventry almost ripped up the script.
The ball broke to Ruben Lameiras, but his effort was straight at Moore in what was a let-off for the hosts.
With the atmosphere somewhat quietened by news of Fleetwood taking the lead, United struggled to wrestle back the momentum and were in need of inspiration – and thankfully for their fans they found it.
Coventry switched off following Fleck’s cross and Clarke side-footed the ball home from close range. Fleck then sealed victory with a sweetly-struck low drive past Lee Burge – and it is surely just a matter of time before the Blades check out of League One.
Senses could well be filled on Saturday. Nearly there.
Sheffield United: Moore; Basham, Wright (L Clarke 52), O’Connell; Freeman, Duffy (Carruthers 52), Coutts, Fleck, Lafferty; Sharp (O’Shea 79), Hanson. Unused substitutes: Long, Done, Wilson, Chapman.
Coventry City: Burge; Willis (Stevenson 45), N Clarke, Turnbull, Stokes; Bigirimana, Foley; Jones, Haynes (G Thomas 79); Lamires; Tudgay. Unused substitutes: Beavon, Folivi, Rawson, Charles-Cook, Kelly-Evans.
Referee: R Joyce (Cleveland).