LAST season’s first Steel City for half a dozen years did not disappoint when it came to conjuring up moments that will live long in the memory.
For United fans, Mark Duffy firing their side back in front midway through the second half was made all the more special by the ball hitting the net as three sides of Hillsborough were still celebrating Lucas Joao’s equaliser by bouncing up and down in unison. The effect was akin to the plug being pulled on a giant sound system as 30,000 voices suddenly fell silent.
Duffy’s strike set the Blades on their way to a 4-2 triumph that left Owls fans questioning the desire of Carlos Carvalhal’s men. Which brings us neatly on to the second abiding image of last year’s clash, an emotional Carlos Carvalhal screwing up and then punching a £20 note on the desk to illustrate his team had not been damaged by their mauling a couple of days earlier.
Trumping even that, however, was the sight of Chris Wilder, clutching the Blades badge on his tracksuit top tightly, celebrating in front of the Leppings Lane end.
It was a moment he and the 2,339 Blades fans fortunate enough to get a ticket had waited a long, long time to savour.
Wilder had heard the jibes from across Sheffield about him being a “Meadowhall Sunday League manager”, he had run Bradway FC alongside good friend Ian Whitehorne when still on the playing staff at Bramall Lane.
He had also listened to Owls fans decrying the third tier that United spent six years in before being promoted under Wilder in 2017 as a “pub league”.
So, this was payback and he was going to milk every last second. If Wilder hadn’t had his Sky duties to attend to, he might even have still been on the pitch cavorting at midnight.
Watching the celebrations from the vantage point of the Press box at Hillsborough, I couldn’t help but cast my mind back a little under 20 years to the moment I realised for the first time just what United meant to Wilder.
It was March, 1998, and he had been at Bradford City for almost exactly a year. Wilder had become a solid member of the squad under, first, Chris Kamara and then Paul Jewell, who had switched him from right-back to play in a back three that has striking similarities with the formation employed by the Blades today.
Bradford’s season had gone awry in what is now called the Championship and chairman Geoffrey Richmond’s response had been to admit all offers for the club’s players would be considered. On the eve of transfer deadline day, Sheffield United made known their interest in Wilder.
As the football reporter for Bradford’s evening newspaper at the time, I was on nodding terms with Wilder and had his home telephone number.
Initially, he was cagey. The transfer was well advanced but he hadn’t signed and didn’t want to do anything that could scupper the move. Nevertheless, a couple of entries from the footballers’ book of clichés were agreed on between us and I ran them both the following day.
To be fair, Wilder wasn’t my main focus heading into deadline day as Peter Beagrie and Eddie Youds were also heading through the exit door. And these two were, with all due respect, much bigger news to supporters.
Nevertheless, what remains etched on the memory all these years on is the ‘off the record’ chat we had after those initial banal comments for publication had been agreed upon as he explained why he just had to go, in his words, “home”.
This wasn’t the cynical ‘always wanted to play for my boyhood club’ drivel that Robbie Keane trotted out about four or five clubs. Or the badge-kissing antics by so many players who every fan knows is loyal only to the size of his wage packet.
No, this was genuine, pure unadulterated love for Sheffield United. Sure, Wilder had already spent six years at Bramall Lane and fulfilled his boyhood dream of sporting those famous red and white stripes.
But, if there was to be a second chance to do it all over again, he was desperate to take it. And no-one, not even a chairman such as Richmond who could belligerently hold out for a bigger fee if the fancy took him, was going to deny Wilder.
The transfer duly went through for around £125,000 and he was in the United side knocked out of the play-off semi-finals by Sunderland seven or so weeks later.
That second leg defeat proved to be Wilder’s final big hurrah in a Blades shirt but his best times at the Lane may still lay ahead with United not only odds on to triumph once again in tomorrow’s derby but also this correspondent’s tip to clinch promotion from the Championship.