On a sunny August afternoon in 1992, Sheffield United famously scored the first ever goal in the inaugural Premier League when Brian Deane’s effort helped The Blades to victory against eventual champions Manchester United.
Despite achieving that landmark, Sheffield United were relegated at the conclusion of the following season. Since then, the Yorkshire outfit have been back in the top-flight for a single campaign, in 2006/07.
Ever since, The Blades have lost their edge, badly.
Despite being recognised as a sizeable club in a football-mad city, where Sheffield Wednesday provide fierce rivalry, United found themselves facing a sixth successive season in League 1 (third tier of English football) as the current campaign kicked-off.
It’s not that they haven’t gone close to returning to The Championship, but their attempts have been littered with play-off heartbreak. Indeed, they have also encountered some rotten luck in some of their efforts to regain second tier status.
There has also been a feeling that United haven’t reached expectations, regularly falling short when it seems – on paper anyway – that they have had the strongest squad in League 1. At times too, they were probably distracted by some very good Cup runs.
Yet, the days of underachieving finally look like being vanquished. Local boy and former Blades player Chris Wilder, recruited from Northampton Town, is doing a fantastic job in his maiden season at the helm and seems set to lead United to this year’s league title.
At the heart of their long overdue return to The Championship is an impressive bunch of Irish players.
Former League of Ireland stars Daniel Lafferty and Jay O’Shea are joined in the first-team squad by former Arsenal and Aston Villa prospect Samir Carruthers, and former St Kevin’s Boys 19-year-old defender Graham Kelly (though the latter has not forced a way in to Wilder’s side having debuted last season).
The other trio, however, could be crucial if the red and whites are to finally secure much-needed promotion, with former Derry City left-back Lafferty playing the majority of this season’s games; initially on loan from Burnley before signing permanently in January.
English-born Carruthers has shown good character to forge a career lower down the league scale having failed to make the grade for Arsenal and Aston Villa; playing almost 100 league games for MK Dons before joining the Steel City resurgence at the turn of the year.
Both Carruthers and the tricky, skilful O’Shea – who originally left Ireland for Birmingham City in 2009 – have added energy and verve to the United side, and O’Shea (on loan from Chesterfield) recently scored his first goal for the club in an important win at Swindon Town.
Indeed, O’Shea’s impact has been such that there’s already talk of him signing permanently when his Chesterfield contract expires in the summer.
“Sheffield United are a massive club and, at this stage of my career, if I didn’t make the move then I might not have got the opportunity to play for a club this size again,” O’Shea told The Yorkshire Post.
“I am playing for my future, whether it be here or somewhere else. But it would be nice if I could make it permanent here, that is the aim for myself. That’s the over-riding target for me,” he added.
Whether that will happen or not is unknown. What is certain is that The Blades finally seem ready to climb out of League 1 – with more than a little help from their Irish contingent.