ANY win at Hillsborough is cause for serious celebration. But Sunday’s destruction of Sheffield Wednesday – yes, I’ll say that again: destruction of Sheffield Wednesday – was about much more than bragging rights.
It was confirmation Sheffield United have arrived as Championship heavyweights. Blades fans do not need reminding that much can go wrong over the course of a season. But Sunday told us whatever happens from now on in, anything is possible.
As United prove their worth, every match, to coin a well used phrase, is becoming a cup final. Current joint leaders Wolves are next up at Bramall Lane in midweek. If the 4-2 win at Hillsborough was landmark, victory against another of the Championship’s big spenders will offer more evidence this season may be more memorable than the last. Then it’s onto Nottingham Forest, under-performers who harbour grand ambitions of their own.
The Steel City derby triumph was memorable for so many reasons. And achieved without talisman Billy Sharp who despite not being fully fit along with fellow striker Ched Evans who is awaiting an operation, was sitting on the bench.
The wonderful performance of 20-year-old David Brooks who in 90 minutes must have added £20million to his considerable transfer value.
Leon Clarke’s return from suspension and injury to spearhead United’s attack, against his old club, may not have lifted the pre-match hearts of all Blades. His two-goal performance went a long way to altering that perception. Clarke could have bagged a hat-trick had the otherwise sublime Brooks’ cross into the box not been up to his customary precision standards, leaving the striker with an awkward task.
Clarke, 32, has now scored six goals in five appearances against the club he used to call home. Even The Star’s Wednesday correspondent, Dom Howson, was moved to say of Clarke’s second goal: “it was a wonderful spectactle and United were convincing winners.”
Mark Duffy’s divine intervention to restore United’s lead just 47 seconds after the Owls had equalised was an inspired substitution. The manner in which he doggedly created the chance and then dispatched the ball to make it 3-2 encapsulated everything that manager Chris Wilder is about. “I had a look up and the only pass on was a difficult ball through the defender's legs. So I decided I was going to absolutely lace it as hard as I could and the goalkeeper couldn't get a hand to it.” said Duffy who was being a little modest.
"It was an unbelievable feeling. The adrenaline running through my body for 20 seconds or so after the goal was priceless. If you could bottle that and sell it, you'd be a rich man."
Then there was the training ground showpiece that gave United a two-minute lead. Down the years set-pieces painstakingly rehearsed at Shirecliffe have more often than not been painful to watch. Not this one. Brooks gave notice in front of Wednesday’s Kop that he is unplayable and was tripped 20 yards out. He then cutely slipped the resulting free kick to John Fleck who drove an unstoppable shop past helpless goalkeeper Kieren Westwood as Wednesday were caught unawares.
Fleck’s contribution may have slipped attention in the high drama that unfolded. But the part played by the 24-year-old Scot, who has just signed a new four-year contract, was immense.
Such was this a complete team performance it is impossible to be critical, and unfair to leave anyone out, even though an early two-goal lead had morphed into 2-2 with 25 minutes remaining. Here we go again was the collective fear as three sides of Hillsborough literally bounced before the real mover and shaker, Duffy, brought celebrating Owls to a shocked standstill.
Being a Blade brings with it an acceptance of deep scars. The sudden silence at one end and wild celebratory scenes at the other reminded me of Wembley 1997 when David Hopkin scored Crystal Palace’s last-gasp winner against United in a gut-wrenching play-off final.
Leon Clarke scored twice against his former club, spearheading United to a famous Steel City derby win at Hillsborough.
Wednesday manager Carlos Carvalhal whose position is coming under increasing threat, admitted: “At 2-2 I thought most of the people in the stadium and watching on television thought we would win but Sheffield United got the goal. It was very hard for us.”
United loanee goalkeeper Jamal Blackman must be wondering what all the fuss about Steel City derbies really is. Such was the Blades grip on the match he was a spectator for most of it. First choice Simon Moore, injured in pre-season, was back on the bench. It is difficult to see an immediate way back for him as Blackman has yet to blot his copybook.
Owls fan and former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan is accustomed to letting it be known what he thinks about the Blades and his beloved Wednesday. He was clearly non-plussed by events and to his credit admitted so. “Better team…Better tactics…Wilder is proving to be an outstanding manager,” he said. Adding: “Final thoughts of the day. If Chris Wilder was foreign he would be lorded as a wizard. The job he has done is remarkable.”
The United boss, who 24 hours earlier had turned 50, was treated to 'Happy Birthday' sung by more than 2000 joyful Blades. Assistant coach Alan Knill also got his own chant. Something a No2 rarely experiences. Wilder, referring to jibes from the blue and white half of the city, said: “We get rammed down our throat about 'coming out of a pub league' and 'always in our shadow’. Well I don't think we were in their shadow today.
“We stepped out and played some outstanding football, defended when we had to, won headers, won tackles, won races, and opened them up. It was them at the end smashing it forward trying to get a result and I thought we were outstanding in every department."
He described his team's performance as "the proudest moment" of his career. "We're a work in progress, we're going to have low days but this is a high for us as a club and for me personally."
Wilder, disappointed that Wednesday salvaged a goal just before the break, added: "I didn't think they deserved to be in the game at half-time. Last year they were in the play-offs, year before play-off final, they have an array of superstars and talent, but my boys pushed that out the way and we said we would go for it. We took a centre-half off [Jake Wright] and put a winger on [Duffy] and we went for it.
“To drive the game forward and to win it, pretty comfortably at the death, was special. It doesn’t get any better.”
Current England cricket Test skipper and United fan, Joe Root, meanwhile, was busy laying down a landmark of his own, surpassing 10,000 runs in international cricket during a one-day international victory against West Indies in Bristol.
September 24, 2017. A perfect day to be a Blade.