STOKE CITY’S home for the past 22 years is one of the least loved stadiums in English football, the temperature rarely feeling to rise above Arctic regardless of whether it is August or January being a major factor.
Come Sunday week, however, the bet365 Stadium could be joining Filbert Street, Feethams and Sixfields Stadium in Sheffield United folklore as the stage for a joyous celebration party.
Victory over a Hull City side unbeaten on home soil since November means the Premier League is now within touching distance. Just three points should be enough to see the Blades home and ensure that the champagne corks will be popping on the final day at Stoke in a manner similar to when United clinched promotion to the top flight via a 5-2 win at Leicester City in 1990.
Or the Fourth Division title-clinching victory at Darlington in 1982 and the sealing of promotion under Chris Wilder at Northampton Town two years ago, both days that will never be forgotten by those supporters fortunate enough to be able to say, ‘I was there’.
Wilder, of course, will not agree United are almost up. Not with two games still to play.
But the Blades’ manager knows a repeat of the professionalism displayed over an Easter weekend that yielded a maximum six points will be a huge help.
“We have talked about it (promotion),“ he said to The Yorkshire Post after opening up a three-point advantage over Leeds United, who lost 2-0 at Brentford.
“There is no point hiding away from it. The position speaks for itself, 85 points with two games to go. But we need to focus and prepare properly and make sure we take the opportunity we have on Saturday (at home to relegated Ipswich Town).”
Those Leeds fans waiting anxiously in London yesterday afternoon for news of events at the KCOM will have been hoping Hull could repay a six-year-old favour.
It had been the Elland Road club, in the guise of a late Ross McCormack winner against Watford, who had rescued the Tigers’ own automatic promotion hopes at the end of Steve Bruce’s first year in charge.
Hull had conceded a stoppage-time equaliser to Cardiff City, meaning a win for the Hornets in a game that still had 15 minutes to play would dump the East Riding club into the play-offs.
McCormack’s late strike at Vicarage Road meant Hull went straight up instead, but two goals from David McGoldrick inside the opening quarter yesterday ensured Hull were never likely to repay that debt to Leeds.
The Blades striker’s first came via a surging run and powerful header from a John Fleck corner, leaving George Long with no chance on his full league debut in the Tigers’ goal.
Hull’s defending could be seriously called into question for McGoldrick’s 14th goal of the season. The 15th, however, was a different story, his powerful 25-yard shot being destined for the net from the moment it left his right boot.
United added a third just before the break. This time the two wing-backs did the damage, George Baldock’s curled cross being of such quality that Enda Stevens was able to ghost past the static Todd Kane and head beyond one-time team-mate Long.
Hull, in contrast to the lively visitors, were woeful. In fact, it was a toss-up between what was worse – Hull’s all-round play or the KCOM security staff’s laughably inadequate attempts to deal with 30 or so Blades interlopers in the North Stand.
The bout of fisticuffs that had followed McGoldrick’s opening goal having been quelled, said United fans were allowed to wander round the edge of the pitch, past the red and white masses in the away seats, before being shown to the front row of an area in the East Stand normally reserved for home fans.
Here they were left free to watch the match unhindered and it was not until half-time that the police belatedly turned up to turf them out.
Hull’s performance was similarly pedestrian, particularly in attack. Kamil Grosicki did bring an early save from Dean Henderson. But the best the Tigers could muster in the next 70 or so minutes was a neat first-half passing move that ended with the Polish winger slipping just as he shaped to shoot.
The upshot was Grosicki’s effort reaching heights usually reserved at the KCOM Stadium for Hull FC goal-kicker Marc Sneyd in Super League as the ball cleared the crossbar by some distance.
Late on Jarrod Bowen warmed the hands of Henderson with a low drive but, really, this was an afternoon to forget for the Tigers.
“Maybe this was a game too far,” said manager Nigel Adkins. “We gave some poor goals away.”
Hull City: Long; Kane, McKenzie, De Wijs, Lichaj; Batty, Irvine; Bowen, Pugh (Toral 68), Grosicki; Campbell (Dicko 68). Unused substitutes: Marshall Stewart, Evandro, Martin, Ridgewell.
Sheffield United: Henderson; Cranie, Egan, O’Connell; Baldock, Fleck, Duffy (Basham 60), Norwood, Stevens; McGoldrick (Washington 89), Hogan (Madine 70). Unused substitutes: Moore, Lundstram, Dowell, Stearman.
Referee: G Scott (Oxfordshire).