ANDRE Payette has hailed the “vision” of Sheffield Steeldogs’ owner Shane Smith after the club secured a third-place finish in the English Premier League.
The Steel City’s second-tier team are now preparing for this weekend’s first round play-off double header with Basingstoke Bison as they bid to reach the final four weekend in Coventry on April 14-15.
But, regardless of how deep they go in the play-offs, 2011-12 will still have proved a standout season for the club.
After scraping into the play-offs last time around and falling at the first hurdle, the fact Payette has been able to keep his team in contention for the league title up until three weeks ago has surprised many.
The form of much-touted goaltender Ben Bowns and 50-plus goalscorer Janis Ozolins has no doubt been key, but astute summer signings in the shape of three of Payette’s former Manchester Phoenix team-mates - Greg Wood, Pavel Gomeniuk and Ben Morgan - was also crucial.
Add that to an existing young squad eager to take on board the firm and enthusiastic direction of Payette and you had a squad capable of mixing it with the bigger budget teams in the league.
An appearance in the EPL Cup final, where they lost on aggregate to hand Guildford Flames a league and cup double, was impressive but it is the consistency in the league which will have given Payette and Smith the most satisfaction.
“To finish third with a mainly Sheffield team is a massive achievement,” said Payette.
“A lot of credit has to go to our owner, Shane Smith, who brought me in here and had a vision for this team. It’s been 18 months of hard work and to finish third below the likes of Guildford and Manchester is something everyone at the club can be proud of.
“The players have embraced a ‘never-say-die’ attitude and we’ve been the hardest-working team in the league.”
It was a 5-2 home win over Bracknell Bees on Saturday that, in the end, sealed third place for the Steeldogs, finishing one point above Slough Jets who failed to overhaul them after going down 3-2 at home to Milton Keynes on Sunday.
The Steeldogs themselves suffered on the last night of the regular season, going down 7-2 to champions Guildford, with Ozolins and Ashley Calvert getting on the scoresheet for the South Yorkshire club.
Against Bracknell, goals from Greg Wood (2), Craig Elliot, Lloyd Gibson and Janis Ozolins were enough to secure Steeldogs’ 32nd win of the regular season.
Play-off opponents Basingstoke again displayed the inconsistency which has dogged their campaign on the final weekend, beating Guildford 4-3 on Sunday, but only after they had gone down 1-0 at rock-bottom Telford Tigers.
The Steeldogs will go into the two-legged tie as favourites courtesy of their final league position and will be buoyed by the 6-2 win they enjoyed at Basingstoke two weeks ago, despite following that up with a 2-1 shoot-out loss at home the following night.
It meant Sheffield took the six-game regular season series 4-2, but with four of those encounters being one-goal games, there will not be much to choose between the two sides this weekend.
Payette added: “It will be great if we can make a bit of history and make the final four in Coventry. We need as many people to get down to Ice Sheffield for the second leg on Sunday.”
Sheffield head to Basingstoke for the first leg on Saturday (6.30pm), while the Hampshire club visit South Yorkshire the following day for the deciding leg (5.30pm).