Tonight, when Sheffield United arrive at the King Power Stadium for their FA Cup tie against Leicester City, manager Chris Wilder will step off the coach, glance over his shoulder and reflect on one of the most proudest moments in the visitors’ long history.
Filbert Street, the Premier League club’s former ground, has long since been demolished. Reduced to rubble by the bulldozers and football’s seemingly inexorable growth before becoming home, rather unimaginatively, to a block of student flats and an unauthorised car park.
But it was on this nondescript piece of land located 200 yards to the south of where City play today that Wilder, then an up-and-coming young defender, helped United regain their top-flight status at the 14th time of asking. The date - 5th May 1990 - remains etched into the memory of nearly every supporter. The scoreline - City 2, United 5 - likewise.
“There was a sense of destiny about the whole group,” Dave Bassett, Wilder’s predecessor in the United hotseat, remembers when asked to recall the events of that afternoon. “They just felt it was their time, their moment, and the same goes for all the fans too.
“You could see what it meant to them, to everybody in fact, and times like that make you so proud of what you do.”
Bassett, who a season earlier had also delivered promotion, played an important role in a remarkable story captured for posterity by a television crew. But there were others, including Brian Deane and Tony Agana, who made huge contributions too. Scoring one and two goals respectively after Gary Mills had earlier fired City in front, they were part of a team Bassett likens to a juggernaut because of its unshakeable self-belief.
“The thing that spoke volumes for me was the resilience of those boys,” he continues. “The togetherness they had. The game before, Billy Whitehurst had missed a sitter right at the death against Blackburn. If that had gone in, we’d have already been up. But they dusted themselves down and went again. Even when Leicester went in front, and I’m thinking ‘here we go’, they just came back.
“David Pleat was their manager at the time. I still talk to him and, when that game comes up, he just says ‘You had too much for us.’ That was it really, the way they came back was like a juggernaut.”
United entered the game knowing a win would secure their place back in the old Division One only to fall behind when Mills, previously of Nottingham Forest and Notts County, pounced. But with Wilf Rostron and Paul Wood joining Agana and Deane on the scoresheet, City were ultimately swept aside in emphatic fashion. Cue pandemonium both on the pitch and in the away dressing room.
“Do you know what, I actually don’t remember a lot about the day,” Deane admits. “It’s all a bit of a blur. I can remember coming off and watching Tony score. That does stick in my mind because the whole place went ballistic. Oh, and there was lots of fancy dress in the crowd too. I don’t remember too much about the celebrations afterwards either but that’s a different story.”
One thing Deane has not forgotten, however, is some of the fall-out. The result spawned not only a new group of United heroes but, with arch-rivals Sheffield Wednesday being relegated, a famous ‘Green ‘Un’ headline.
“I do remember that - ‘Blades Glory - Owls Down’,” Deane adds. “Something else also sticks out in my mind. That was the highlights on TV and, when Wednesday dropped, they started playing ‘It’s Over’ by Roy Orbison.”
Agana, Deane’s fellow centre-forward, can recollect things more clearly.
“When I got the fifth, and everybody knew that was it, our fans came storming on the pitch,” he says. “A lot of them were in fancy dress so it was nice to get a hug from Captain Hook! Funnily enough, that was the only time I was worried about going up. A few days earlier, Leeds had got into bother about a pitch invasion and there was talk of a points deduction going round. So, for a brief moment, I was worried. I put my sensible hat on and cleared the pitch. Then, very quickly, took it off again.”
“We knew we had to win and we knew the sheer weight of support coming down,” Agana adds. “For me, seeing how much of the ground our fans had taken over in the warm-up gave us the biggest, biggest lift. It just shows what a powerful thing that connection with the terraces can be. Really, I don’t think the fans realise what a difference they can make. I see something similar at the club now. There wasn’t a moment, other than that brief second, when I questioned if we’d do it. Not even when we went a goal down. Some people might have worried or doubted themselves but I didn’t and we didn’t. I just looked at the stands, looked around the pitch and realised there was no one I’d rather go into battle with.”
Bassett, who two years later ensured United became founder members of the Premier League, acknowledges not everything ran quite as smoothly.
“There was a funny moment when my assistant Geoff Taylor and I were having a row about something in the dressing room,” he explains. “I say ‘something’ because, as it turned out, we were both talking about a different thing. That’s why I probably didn’t make any sense to him and vice versa! It was the occasion and, no matter how long you’ve been in the game or experienced you are, sometimes it just gets to you. Fortunately the lads got the message. By that stage, they knew what they were doing anyway.”
“I got stripped down to my pants at the end,” Bassett adds. “Everything got torn off me, every bit of clothing other than those, fortunately for myself and everybody else who was there. I walked around the ground in my pants later on when we stayed up but that was by choice.”