IF YOU thought Billy Sharp at the age of 31 is at his peak, think again. Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder is confident he will only get better with age.
The United skipper, top goalscorer last season with 30, launched the Blades Championship return with the 39th-minute winner which ultimately sank an enterprising Brentford at Bramall Lane. United, who won all six of their pre-season friendlies, remain unbeaten since January 24.
It was only fitting that the lifelong Blades fan, pictured above receiving the League One Player of the Year award in London, should get his team off the mark in what has been a Roy of the Rovers-style return to the club for a second time and where his career began.
After signing from Leeds in 2015, he was the shining light, top scoring with 21 goals, in an otherwise dark and dismal period under former boss Nigel Adkins.
Last season he spectacularly spearheaded United’s promotion charge, leading by example and shouldering the captain’s responsibility. But Wilder still expects more.
“I’m delighted for Billy, as we all are, getting himself in the six-yard box and a great finish,” said the manager after United 1-0 win. “With age I think he will improve. He keeps himself fit does Bill. He will play cuter and be smarter.”
Sharp ensured he’d grab the headlines but the man who set up his goal, strike partner Leon Clarke's overall contribution was outstanding. For me his best performance since arriving from Bury last summer.
Injured for long periods last season, Clarke came into his own towards the end of the campaign, scoring six of his nine goals in six successive matches during April to belatedly register himself as United’s second top goalscorer behind runaway leader Sharp.
When paired together in United's title-winning campaign they looked like strangers. If Saturday’s performance was anything to go by they are now developing a healthy partnership and Wilder agrees. “The way those two worked off the ball and especially on the ball was outstanding and gave us an opportunity to go and play,”he said.
The former Sheffield Wednesday front man's laid-back personality has from the perspective of many supporters often reflected his approach to the game. Even at his most energetic the striker gives the appearance he’s taking a stroll.
No change there but strolling he was not, chasing down loose balls and testing defenders. One sublime second-half moment encapsulated his performance. Clarke appeared to have been outwitted but stuck close to his man, won the ball back, accelerated and whipped in another precision cross onto the head of Sharp whose goal-bound effort this time was saved.
Clarke should have been on the scoresheet himself, but his effort was incorrectly ruled offside, one of two ‘goals’ – the other another finish from Sharp – that were disallowed. “I thought he was absolutely outstanding,” said Wilder who confessed the match “wasn’t one for the coaches.” He was nonetheless pleased by his team’s spirit and determination towards the end when Brentford, seeking an equaliser, had United pinned in their own half.
It wasn’t perfect by any means and tougher tests are to follow. Next up in the league are big-spending promotion favourites Middlesbrough at the Riverside. But in what started and finished in a carnival atmosphere, United cleared the first hurdle and put three points on the board in what was an absorbing reintroduction to life in The Championship.
Wilder admitted prior to kick-off at Bramall Lane that he and his players were stepping into the unknown. The proof lay in the pudding. At times there was cause for anxiety. But on the initial evidence he and the majority of a 26,746 crowd, only bettered on the day by Aston Villa and Wolves, were satisfied by what they saw.
In charge of his first match at this level, Wilder admitted: “We’ve had to hang on in there at times.” But he wanted to put on a show to reward United’s extraordinarily loyal fanbase and they weren’t disappointed. “It’s been a long old six years, they’ve followed in great numbers through not so good times and to get into the Championship is a reward for them.
“It was one hell of an atmosphere today. That was right up there with some of the cup games I’ve been to as a punter, some of the games we were involved in last year. It was an exceptional atmosphere to be involved in.”
Giant Jamal Blackman, the goalkeeper who stands 6ft 6ins tall, can be happy with his league debut, one of four new arrivals, three of them starters, to do so. He reacted smartly with three exceptional saves to win hearts and minds.
The 23-year-old loanee from Chelsea, however, demonstrated an unnerving kicking style, often hoisting the ball high rather than long, the first of which drew comment from Wilder. That aside Blackman, a cool-looking customer, demonstrated why he has been on United’s radar for the last 12 months. Injured first choice goalkeeper, Simon Moore, however, shouldn’t worry too much just yet.
Summer signing Richard Stearman, believed to have cost just short of £1million from Fulham, looked value for money. Flanked by rocks Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham he gave the impression he’d been playing in United’s now customary back three for years.
When Samir Carruthers arrived from MK Dons in January, boss Wilder said he was bought with the future and a step up in class in mind. The midfield man demonstrated just that and what an important role he is likely to play this season, receiving a standing ovation when replaced by Jack Lundstram, signed from Oxford, midway through the second half.
Carruthers started ahead of Mark Duffy whose pre-season was interrupted when his wife gave birth and then by a minor injury problem. “Duff’s not up to speed and where we would like him to be,” said Wilder.
It almost goes without saying now the influence central midfield men Paul Coutts and John Fleck, who let fly with a shot which struck a post, provide. Enda Stevens, who played for Portsmouth in League Two last season, transitioned well in the wing-back position on the left where he was preferred to Daniel Lafferty, the usual occupant of that role. But pace down both flanks was missing with Kieron Freeman in particular having difficulty making headway on the opposite side.
“It’s just on current form,” explained Wilder of his decision to drop Lafferty. “Dan’s done nothing wrong but Enda’s had an outstanding pre-season. This is what we’re after. We want competition. Players are going to be disappointed but I want tough decisions. I want a few more tougher decisions in terms of bringing a couple more [players] into the club.” Adding: “We do need it, I think that is the key. Getting those players in is vital.”
Looking at the bigger picture, Wilder said: “We’ve played a side that’s not been out of the top ten of this division for the past three years. They’re a very technical side at the top of the pitch and move the ball about the pitch really well.
“We would have liked to have been a bit better on the counterattack, that’s key when you get the first pass out when you’re under pressure. If you look at their shape and system at the end it was four-two-four. They were absolutely going for it like we would and sometimes you’ve just got to do what you have to do to keep the ball out of the back of the net.
“We all see the same things, back four, back three, back five drop deep when you want to get them up the pitch but sometimes when you’re in the heat of the battle it’s difficult and you just want to see the game out.
“But we’ll get there, we’ll get better. For a desire to keep the ball out of the back of the net and keep a clean sheet and work the way they’ve worked today is a fantastic platform for myself to go from.”