HAS Billy Sharp finally found a strike partner fit enough to lace his boots? Say what you like about the merits of those who have played alongside the Sheffield United skipper for just over two years, but none of them have yet to make the grade.
It’s been a long time coming. Early evidence suggests Clayton Donaldson’s dramatic arrival on and off the pitch might fill the void and provide something that was missing even in last season’s triumph.
He also appears to be yet another example of manager Chris Wilder’s Midas touch. Think of the boss as a traditional taxi driver who’s done ‘The Knowledge’, distinct from a growing number of up-and-comings reliant on their sat-navs. Yes, barring signal losses and post code errors, the latter will get you home eventually. But the former has done the groundwork, has a nice line in chatter and knows all the shortcuts when there are hold-ups on the way.
Bradford-born Jamaican international striker Donaldson appeared from under the radar in the final hour of the summer transfer window. Hurriedly ushered into United’s Shirecliffe training base after frantic signals from his new boss waving torchlight from a phone in the darkness of the car park. The switch from Birmingham City almost didn’t happen.
But there was nothing skin-of-the-teeth about the manner in which the 33-year-old dispatched two debut goals against troubled Sunderland to ensure the Blades first away win (2-1) of the season. All the more memorable as it was their first Championship victory on the road since April 25, 2011, six managers and Chris Morgan twice pulling on his caretaker’s overalls ago.
Wilder joked that Donaldson’s display was not bad for a cut-price £50,000 buy from Aldi. A bargain, yes. Throw-away even. You can’t go wrong for that sort of money in today’s inflationary game. The till receipt, however, didn’t reflect his quality at the Stadium of Light. The only downside was a forced substitution after burying his second goal. “I felt a little twinge in my hamstring as I ran on to the ball,” he said.
It shouldn’t go unmentioned amid a hugely encouraging start to life back in the Championship, that but for the addition of Donaldson, who as a youngster briefly played for Wilder in the Northern Premier League at Halifax, United were rapidly developing into a one-trick pony in front of goal.
Sharp, 30 goals last season and top scorer for two successive campaigns, is leading the way once more with four. Second top league marksman – in fact the only other Championship scorer – when the Blades stepped out on Wearside? Derby County’s Johnny Russell who found the back of his own net in the Rams 3-1 defeat at Bramall Lane.
The warning signs have been there for some time. Remarkably, of United’s 92 goals on the way to last season’s League One title, 47 of them came from other areas of the team, not the forward division. Indeed, wing-back Kieron Freeman (10 and 11 in all competitions) was the only other player to reach double figures. Subtract Sharp’s fabulous haul, and you are left with just 15 between the other strikers (17 in all competitions). Of those Clarke was second best with nine (seven league) courtesy of six goals in five appearances towards the end of an extraordinary campaign. For the record Caolan Lavery scored 4, Matt Done 3, James Hanson 1, Marc McNulty 0.
Given that backdrop Sharp must surely have thought Christmas had come early at Sunderland. A huge burden beginning to lift off his shoulders at the sight of Donaldson confidently sweeping the ball past Sunderland goalkeeper Robbin Ruiter in the first-half. Then finishing an exquisite pass from hugely talented substitute David Brooks, he must be worthy of a league start, to put United on cruise control after the break.
Wales’ new Under-21 international who England let slip the net after being named player of the summer’s triumphant Toulon Tournament, has looked class personified for United when given the chance. He could surely play an advanced role if Donaldson needs more recovery time. It may even provide Wilder with another strike option he didn’t think he had.
Sunderland, it has to be said were poor. Relegated from the Premier League and finding it hard to adjust to the drop, they haven’t won at home since December 17. A fantastic ground and loyal, long-suffering supporters, Blades fans who have experienced even greater depths of despair, can identify with that.
Once United led from the 21st minute the result was never in doubt. Jack Rodwell’s consolation for the Black Cats scored in added time, was just that. Hard to envisage that 12 months earlier 45 places in football’s pyramid separated the clubs. Sunderland lay 16th in the Premier League, United 17th in League One. Wilder was rumoured to be on Sunderland’s short-list to replace David Moyes and take on the Wearside challenge. Preston’s Simon Grayson, often linked with the Blades in the past, got the job. One of them might be willing to swap but it wouldn’t be Wilder.
It’s only one match to judge from but fingers crossed the Blades appear at last to have another striker who takes his chances and lives up to the job title. “I don’t think I have had a better debut,” said The Don. “I’ve scored on my debut before but I don’t think I’ve ever got two, especially away from home. Two goals at Sunderland, it doesn’t come much better.”
With Lavery recovering from an operation to a smashed cheekbone and damaged eye socket which almost cost him the sight of an eye following an accidental clash of heads with Derby’s Marcus Olsson, and Clarke completing a three-match suspension, United lacked options up front.
Ched Evans was named on the bench and replaced the man-of-the-match in the 80th minute. This only three days after Wilder admitted that the 28-year-old, who may need surgery on a problem ankle, was only 75 per cent fit and is to be given a couple of months off in the hope of aiding recovery to a series of niggling problems.
Fleetwood striker Devante Cole blew a golden opportunity to further his career when he and his agent dithered on the final day of the transfer window, eventually missing the deadline by minutes.
It serves to illustrate further just how vital Donaldson’s late night dash to Shirecliffe was. A few minutes later and the picture going forward could have looked very different. Wilder had long since identified the need to sign two strikers. Fleetwood’s Devante Cole, pictured, of course, would also be in the mix but for the shenanigans of agent and player alike which resulted in the deadline being missed. Maybe Cole, who spurned the opportunity to escape League One, make a proper name for himself and advance his career in front of big crowds, did United a favour. His attitude is certainly questionable.
Such was the anxiety of that frenetic last day of transfer attempts that even a man now deemed surplus to requirements only eight months after signing a two-and-a-half-year deal, James Hanson, was told in a text message that his expected £200,000 move to Scunthorpe had been called off. A precaution as the clock ticked down.
Donaldson’s arrival and instant impact has taken everyone by surprise apart from Wilder and his No2 Alan Knill who have long been admirers. “We felt Clayton was what we needed,” said the Blades boss. “It's not always available to us but we wanted someone to run in behind. The goals showed everyone what he is all about.
“I’ve almost signed him eight times. Ask every player he has played with and they will come to the same conclusions; he's hard-working, under-rated, first-class and he’s a team player.”
Blades from all corners, Billy Sharp in particular, will drink to that.