Desire of the Blades helps them make big step up
IF ever confirmation was needed as to the strength of the commitment to one another that is the hallmark of this Sheffield United team it arrived in the 36th minute at Bramall Lane on Saturday.
Andreas Weimann, the Derby County schemer, played a through ball to Matej Vydra that sliced open the Blades’ defence and left the seasoned Championship operator bearing down on goal.
The outcome seemed inevitable as the Czech striker – with a goal every four games at international level – prepared to pull the trigger.
But matching him stride for stride was a pint-sized midfielder more accustomed to creating goals than preventing them.
Yet after 35 yards of chasing, combative Glaswegian John Fleck was not finished as he timed a superb tackle to perfection to deny a certain goal.
Then he was straight on his feet to race upfield to help launch another attack.
That Fleck did the same midway through the second half, again to deny Vydra and this time with the use of his body, summed up the industrious nature of his own performance and that of his team.
Blades manager Chris Wilder hailed this win over Derby as their best result of the embryonic season, because a hard-working performance produced a positive result.
“It was a proper Sheffield United performance,” he beamed afterwards. “What this club is all about, and it’s what our fans expect us to be like – in possession we’re going forward and going for it, and out of possession, we’re being tough, getting around the ball, winning tackles, headers and races, and recovering and working our hearts out.”
The goals may have come about fortuitously; Billy Sharp returning Derby goalkeeper Scott Carson’s tame clearance with a firsttime shot from 25 yards after four minutes and Johnny Russell taking the ball off the boot-laces of Caolan Lavery and sweeping it beyond his own bewildered goalkeeper just before the break.
The finale may have been more hectic than was necessary, with Craig Bryson heading Derby a lifeline in the ‘ 92nd’ minute to threaten an unlikely share of the spoils before Sharp quashed any hope of a comeback with another well-placed shot into an unguarded goal after Carson had raced upfield to add an extra body in the penalty area.
But it was no less warranted. Even then, Wilder would point to the good fortune of those incredibly soft goals owing as much to how United have to equip themselves during life back in the second tier after six years away as Derby’s generosity.
“(Derby manager) Gary (Rowett) might point to the mistakes they’ve made, but the key is when they do make mistakes we have to punish them and we’ve done that,” said Wilder.
“Any team that plays us at Bramall Lane is going to have to do a lot of things very well to get a result. If they don’t have good days, then we’ll punish them.”
Buying into that theory as much as anyone is Paul Coutts, United’s cultured midfielder, who along with Fleck was able to force a midfield packed full of Premier League experience in Tom Hud- dlestone and Weimann to play too deep in their own territory.
“The gaffer banged on at us all week about how we’d need all 11 players, plus the lads coming off the bench, putting in a shift,” said Coutts, a Nigel Clough signing from Derby some two and a half years ago.
“And that’s what we’re all about; no individual star names, just teamwork and togetherness, and we’ve got Sharpy, who puts the ball in the back of the net. “That’s our biggest strength. “We’ve jumped up a league so we need to stick together, work hard, outwork the opposition and try and play our football when we get the chance.
“You’ve just got to dig in for each other – and that got us over the line this time.”
There were moments of concern, but never panic, for United. The three-man central defence held shape well, particularly through Jack O’Connell.
While the win at least breaks the routine of 1-0 home victories courtesy of Sharp, the 31-year-old is still their only goalscorer this term. They also need to distort the symmetry of their season, with perfection at home jarring with a pointless yield on the road.
But it is still very early days and United can be proud of how well they have adapted so far.
“We’ve done all right in the tougher games so far and we can take positives into the international break,” was Coutts’s assessment. “They always say 10 games is a good gauge so the next block of fixtures will be important.”
Wilder will look to bring in more players before the closure of the transfer window on Thursday night, to add to Tottenham defender Cameron Carter-Vick- ers, who arrived late last week. Wilder will put squad-strengthening at the heart of every decision he makes, with the Blades fan conscious that there is no room for sentiment as he seeks to improve a team that has not lost in league football at Bramall Lane since January.
Whoever comes in, teamwork will have to be at their heart.
Sheffield United captain Billy Sharp celebrates making the game safe with his late second goal after Derby County had pulled it back to 2-1. Inset, Blades players show their delight after Johnny Russell scored an unfortunate own goal for the visitors.