SO what have we learned after Sheffield United dipped their toes into the water at Bournemouth?
Well, more than £40million spent in the summer transfer window but for all the talk and excitement surrounding an unprecedented shopping spree at Bramall Lane, it was old boy Billy Sharp who grabbed the headlines after springing late-on from the bench.
Luke Freeman, signed from QPR, looks as if he is going to be a key contributor to Blades ambition in their return to the Premier League after an absence of 12 years.
Goalkeeper Dean Henderson, on loan from Manchester United for his second season at the Lane, showed every sign that he might be competing for England’s No1 shirt sooner rather than later.
Against teams where a point, perhaps three, is a realistic opportunity – as, with all due respect, Bournemouth are – United look far more effective playing their familiar attacking game. Rather than adopting, if perfectly understandable given the occasion, a more measured approach for much of the match.
Oh, and yes, talkSPORT radio host Adrian Durham is even more of a numpty than was first thought. More later.
By anyone’s definition, even that of Danny Mills, United made a promising start to life in the top flight. One swallow doesn’t make a summer but Chris Wilder’s side left the Vitality Stadium with their heads held high and confidence growing.
Mills, by the way, played for among others Leeds United, Manchester City and Middlesbrough. The former defender also won 19 senior England caps so you would expect him to know a thing or two about football.
But he last played 11 years ago and now the 42-year-old, as often happens with so-called pundits – with notable exceptions – chasing easy money, apparently feels comfortable earning a crust by rocking up at the studios of anyone willing to pay without having done his homework and trotting out uninformed bilge. Certainly where the Blades are concerned.
To claim as he did that Wilder’s United play route one football, smacks of a man who has spent the last three years in solitary confinement. “It’s not the most glamorous way of playing,” he told Sky Sports News, “they might play a little direct at times.” Based on? An era long, long gone, maybe, but never under Wilder.
Perhaps the biggest pointer from the south coast was the change in approach after falling behind in the 62nd minute. Until then United looked composed and kept the Cherries on their toes when opportunity arose on the counter-attack. But regular observers will also know they were hiding their light under a bushel.
Not so after Chris Mepham put Bournemouth ahead. United suddenly looked like the version supporters have become so used to under Wilder. Playing on the front foot with urgency and taking control. The introduction of Freeman with 12 minutes of normal time remaining was, in my opinion, transformational. He demonstrated in the short space of time available after replacing surprise starter John Lundstram, just what a creative influence he is going to be.
Record signing Ollie McBurnie, on for David McGoldrick immediately after Mepham’s strike, whilst not as impactful demonstrated his worth. But it was skipper Sharp, frustrated to be sitting on the bench, who stole the show.
It wasn’t the greatest of goals the 33-year-old has scored but maybe the most prized. Sharp, the club’s top scorer for three of the last four seasons – 24 in the last campaign and 69 in total since 2016 – prodded home a trademark effort in the 88th minute and only 360 seconds after replacing Chris Basham.
Wilder thinks the world of Sharp but he isn’t averse to dropping him down the pecking order, either, despite a consistent goalscoring record. Maybe with the likes of strikers McBurnie, Callum Robinson and Lys Mousset now on board, Sharp may have to get used to a super sub role. But for the moment at least, he is surely hard to ignore.
“The manager told us to stick our chests out, be brave," said Sharp. “We all watched Norwich [on television the night before]. They played very well but got beaten 4-1 by Liverpool. No disrespect to Bournemouth, but we thought we could come here and get something from the game.”
McGoldrick, meanwhile, who started alongside the impressive Robinson, continues to demonstrate what an asset he is. Thirty-two in November and stepping out for the first time in the top flight, he looked like he had been played there for some time.
Older Cherries supporters have a soft spot for the Republic of Ireland international. Whilst on loan from Southampton early in his career, he scored a goal every other appearance for Bournemouth who extended an initial month’s deal until the end of the season, helping them avoid relegation to League Two.
Cast your mind back to 2006-07 when United were last playing Premier League football and had to wait seven matches into the season for their first win, many thought then boss Neil Warnock was a little too respectful of the opposition in a season which ended in a cruel relegation on goal difference.
In that controversial campaign they still amassed 38 points, 27 of them at home. Since then the top flight has become much quicker and more competitive. Seven wins and three draws at the Lane won’t be nearly good enough to avoid the drop.
But United have been dealt a good hand by the early fixture schedule. A hand which if played correctly, could shape the narrative of the season’s latter half and help avoid the nail-biting disappointment of before.
As Sharp said, a trip to Bournemouth on the opening day in front of little more than 11,000 fans, presented a great opportunity to avoid defeat. Now they have Crystal Palace and Leicester City at home before the first huge challenge of the season, a trip to Chelsea. After that Southampton visit the Lane. Those home dates offer a terrific opportunity to make early headway and lay a foundation to keep heads above water. Of course, it all balances out in the end but if United can climb the ladder early on it makes setbacks a little easier to handle
Starting on the front foot, as in the last half hour at Bournemouth, is surely the right way to go. Sending a signal, like in recent seasons, that Bramall Lane is a place to be respected for all and feared for some.
And so to radio host Durham. Having insulted Sharp before the season kicked-off as a “League One striker,” and accusing United of “not trying” to compete by buying Championship players, the man has been proven an ignorant fool who also has little understanding of extracting the maximum out of a budget.
Even he realised as much regarding Sharp, later apologising on air with a cringeworthy and childish poem dedicated to the striker which had the opposite effect, only adding insult to injury.
The man has form and should be an embarrassment to his employers. But not content to let sleeping dogs lie he then took to social media with a grovelling tweet after Sharp scored at the first time of asking at the Vitality Stadium.
The player’s cool reaction after being asked about Durham’s initial comments? “I don’t care.” Of course, Durham seeks oxygen to boost ratings by being provocative and he has succeeded. But maybe it’s time for talkSPORT to consider regaining credibility by turning off the life support machine.