Fairytales do happen, writes James Shield. Just ask Fleetwood Town.
But tomorrow, when they make their first ever appearance at Highbury, Sheffield United aim to remind the former North-West Counties club that football can still be a nightmare as well.
“Where they’ve come from to where they are now has been magnificent,” Bob Harris, the visitors’ full-back, said. “You can only admire what’s occurred.
“They’ve got a chairman who puts a lot of his own money in and the facilities are meant to be brilliant. But we aren’t going there to applaud them or admire what’s been a superb story. We’re going there to win.”
Harris knows from personal experience what is required to prevail at a stadium where only Walsall and Morecambbe have triumphed since the start of the campaign. The Scot, who joined Nigel Clough’s side last term, was a member of the Blackpool team which beat Fleetwood 5-1 in the FA Cup four seasons ago and celebrated a rare appearance for their local rivals by creating the first of those goals.
“That was one of the few games I did play for them,” Harris continued. “I had a good time then and hopefully I can have another good one now.
“Fleetwood is pretty close to Blackpool but I don’t think it’s a massive derby. That will probably change if they end up in the same division though.
“I’ve got two mates there - Stephen Dobbie and Stephen Crainie - so I know what to expect.
“Look at Stephen (Dobbie). He left a Premier League outfit to go there so that tells you all you need to know about how tough this is going to be.”
Clough was at pains to emphasise exactly that point when he previewed United’s latest League One encounter at the Redtooth Academy earlier this week. The former England international was on loan at Hillsborough when Fleetwood embarked upon a remarkable journey which has taken them from the tenth to the third tier of English competition in just 17 years.
United have been on an altogether different trajectory, suffering relegations from the top-flight and Championship while their opponents, now managed by Graham Alexander, were blazing a trail through the leagues.
However, despite suffering some chequered results of late, there are signs that direction of travel could be about to change.
United, fifth in the League One table, boast a 54 per cent success rate under Clough’s tutelage and, having already reached an FA Cup semi-final, host Southampton in the quarter-finals of the Capital One Cup next week.
“Since the gaffer has come in there’s been a massive turnaround here,” Harris said. “Look at the league position from then to now.
“No matter who we play, we are confident of beating them. We did that in the FA Cup last season and, even when we went to Wembley, despite being huge underdogs we gave it a real go.
“Those are the type of games that you want to play in but first we’ve got to try and take care of business here.”
Harris, acknowledging a top two finish remains United’s “biggest priority,” was quick to dismiss claims that progress in knockout competition could prove a distraction when it comes to achieving that aim.
“You saw last year how the cup helped us. We beat so many clubs who were a division or two above us.
“When you do that, it breeds confidence. You go into games knowing that you aren’t going to lose or at feeling like that anyway. Nothing beats winning and that was a big reason why we went from 21st to seventh in such a short period.”
Fleetwood, six places below United after winning May’s League Two play-off final at Wembley, expect Dobbie to spearhead an attack which has hit the target only once in its previous four outings. Harris, recently praised by Clough for producing his “best run of form” after arriving at Bramall Lane, is determined to ensure that barren run continues.
“I’ve had a run of games and that’s been a big part with regards to my form,” Harris said. “The gaffer tried to get me a few times when he was elsewhere and so, when he came in again for me in January, this was the only place I wanted to come to.
“I was left out for a few at the start of this season but sometimes I think you need a kick up the backside like that.
“It’s great for your confidence when you know a manager wants you. This is a great club with a great coaching staff and group of players so why wouldn’t you want to be here?”