The biggest names in League One combined to produce a match which will live long in the memory at Valley Parade this afternoon.
Two goals from Billy Sharp appeared to have set the visitors on course for their eighth victory in 10 outings before efforts from Jordy Hiwula and Timothee Dieng, after Billy Clarke had struck, turned this absolutely pulsating fixture on its head.
But this United side, overhauled by Chris Wilder following his appointment during the close season, is made of mighty stern stuff and demonstrated its character when Chris Basham restored parity at the far post.
There was nearly a twist when Hiwula’s header appeared to be sneaking into the top corner of Simon Moore’s net but the United goalkeeper somehow managed to divert the ball onto the crossbar before it bounced away to safety.
The drama continued to unfold at a breathless pace but, try and they might, neither of these promotion contenders could land a knockout blow.
Earlier this season, some observers claimed the captaincy had been weighing heavily upon Sharp’s shoulders.
It appeared a pretty comfortable fit here as, scoring twice for the second-match in succession, the centre-forward took his total for the season to nine in just 16 outings.
Sharp’s first came when Mark Duffy looped a delicious cross over Colin Doyle. Clarke dragged City level before United’s leading marksman restored United’s lead following an intelligent John Fleck set-piece. The former Scotland under-21 international’s delivery had a huge bearing on this absorbing game. Hiwula and Dieng were both on target as Stuart McCall’s men wrestled control of the contest before Basham scrambled home at the far post from a Fleck corner.
As expected, having entered this game unbeaten in their last nine league outings, Wilder named an unchanged starting eleven with Basham retaining his place at centre-half. It was a show of faith in the former Bolton Wanderers and Blackpool midfielder given that Jack O’Connell was fit enough to take his place on the bench after missing Tuesday’s victory over Shrewsbury Town due to illness.
City, though, found their rhythm first with Clarke, one of three former United players in McCall’s first choice eleven, miscalculating his angles in front of goal after meeting Nicky Law’s eighth minute cross. Law, a Steelphalt Academy graduate, has emerged as a key performer in the hosts’ team since returning to England following spells with Motherwell and Rangers.
But it was his mistake - failing to spot Duffy’s run across the box as he prepared to receive a square pass - which ended with Matt Done testing Doyle’s handling soon after.
The City goalkeeper failed a similar test when Paul Coutts whipped a corner into the penalty area and Daniel Lafferty sliced a first time shot wide. But not before Sharp had given United a 17th minute lead. Jake Wright seized possession and released Mark Duffy whose floated centre was headed home by the centre-forward at the far post.
Unlike Wilder, McCall did choose to reshuffle his pack with Stephen Darby the most notable absentee. He must have been questioning the wisdom of his decision when, following Lafferty’s miss, Done found himself unmarked in front of Doyle after Duffy had floated across the other side of the pitch.
Unfortunately for United, Duffy’s first time effort flew straight into the goalkeeper’s chest and was scrambled clear. Those misses proved costly when, nine minutes before the interval, Clarke equalised from a superb Matthew Kilgallon cross.
The rest of the half contained plenty of huff and puff but few clear cut chances. One did present itself for Coutts but the midfielder overelaborated before finding Duffy with a slide-rule pass when a shot would surely have been the better option.
Sharp found the back of the net for a second time at the beginning of the second period but the ‘goal’ was disallowed. Duffy sent a clever set-piece rolling towards the edge of the area when City’s defence expected it to be floated towards Doyle. Sharp, who clearly did know what his colleague planned, rolled Timothee Dieng but was adjudged to have fouled him in the process.
United did not have to wait long before regaining the advantage. In the 52nd minute, Fleck’s free-kick caught City’s rearguard napping and Sharp did the rest. Once again, however, City struck back. Simon Moore denied Josh Cullen with an excellent one-handed save - referee Jon Moss inexplicably awarding a goal-kick - but was powerless to prevent Hiwula converting a simple finish at the far post after a James Hanson mis-kick had snaked its way across the six yard area.
As the action became increasingly franctic, so the goals continued to flow. Basham levelled when he bundled home Fleck’s 73rd minute corner at the far post. Sharp looked odds on to claim a hat-trick when substitute Caolan Lavery held off his marker to send his fellow striker through but Doyle made a superb reaction save before Moore followed suit to deny Hiwula.
Bradford City: Doyle, Law, Vincelot, Dieng, Hanson, B Clarke, Hiwula, Cullen, Knight-Percival, McArdle, Kilgallon. Not used: Darby, N Clarke, Marshall, Vuckic, Morais, Devine.
Sheffield United: Moore, Fleck, Basham, Sharp, Done (Lavery 70), Wright, Coutts (Scougall 70), Freeman, Ebanks-Landell, Duffy, Lafferty. Not used: Hussey, O’Connell, Brown, Chapman.
Referee: Jonathan Moss (West Yorkshire). Attendance: 20,972. (2,716)