Captain, leader, legend and, after sealing a victory which underlined exactly why Sheffield United are League One champions, now a double centurion too.
Billy Sharp scored the 200th and 201st goals of his career as Chris Wilder’s side, runaway leaders at the top of the table, continued their dominance of this supposedly unpredictable division by recording yet another emphatic win.
Unbeaten since January and only three shy of the 100 point landmark ahead of Sunday’s game against Chesterfield, the numbers behind United’s season are, assistant manager Alan Knill later acknowledged, absolutely phenomenal. But, after MK Dons became the latest team bludgeoned into submission by their attitude, organisation and attacking prowess, history ensured that Sharp’s vital statistics dominated the news agenda.
“We’re all delighted for him because, most of all, Billy just loves getting goals,” Knill said. “In training, he’ll score five and think nothing about it. Once he’s in the right area, it’s just a natural thing. You can try and teach it but the best just have it anyway. He also gives us a work ethic and a leadership the rest of the lads just look up too.”
A year ago, Sharp cut a frustrated figure as United limped to an 11th placed finish. Twelve months on, and transformed by Chris Wilder’s appointment, this campaign has been a fairytale for a player who wears his heart on his sleeve and makes no secret of the fact that representing the club he supports is a deeply personal experience. The strikes which broke the Dons’ resistance, after Leon Clarke had earlier headed United in front, were indicative of a centre-forward at the top of his game. Sharp might not possess explosive pace. But, at this level, his eye for a chance and speed of thought are unparalleled.
“It was an easy choice to give Billy the armband,” Knill continued. “He’s a proper Blade. What happened before we came in, Billy made it clear he wasn’t happy. He didn’t want it to happen again and that made our minds up.”
Sharp’s record - he averages a goal every 1.96 matches since returning to Bramall Lane in July 2015 - demands the respect of team mates and opponents alike. But, as Robbie Neilson’s men discovered, he is not the only member of Wilder’s squad capable of wreaking havoc in the box. Earlier this term, as he struggled to overcome an ankle injury, Clarke was being written-off as a busted flush. Now fit, healthy and, by his own admission, psychologically stronger, the former Scunthorpe loanee and Sheffield Wednesday marksman is proving the doubters wrong and demonstrating why United were right to persevere.
“How we are seeing Leon now, is the Leon I know,” Knill, who worked with Clarke at Glanford Park, said. “He’s a proper handful and, like Billy, when he’s in front of goal he scores.”
Although United are likely to increase the options at Wilder’s disposal this summer, Knill is convinced they already possess the variety required to compete in the Championship. Whereas Sharp is all about instinct, as the first of his two efforts at Stadium mk underlined, Clarke’s greatest assets are an acute intelligence and positional sense. Ambling around the penalty area as John Fleck prepared to take a corner moments before half-time, Clarke suddenly darted forward before retracing his steps and, as Dons’ defence tried to fathom his intentions, turning home unmarked. It was his sixth goal in only five outings since returning to action last month.
“He’s been really unlucky but he’s kept at it and we always felt he had a part to play,” Knill continued. “I don’t think age comes into it and, as you get older, you might not have the attributes you did when you were younger but your knowledge of the game is much, much better. You can see that with Leon and Billy. It’s not just about running around, it’s cleverness as well. We don’t see any reason why they can’t keep scoring goals.”
Make no mistake, United were not at their fluent best during the penultimate match of the season. But, under Wilder’s stewardship, they are a ruthless, winning machine.
Dons, previously beaten only twice at home in the league following Neilson’s arrival in January, provided a guard of honour before kick-off and, after gifting Sharp his first effort of the afternoon, their generosity did not end there. United, however, dominated possession and, as the Scot lamented, were simply better at exploiting the big moments. Clarke pounced after Sharp and Dean Lewington, the Dons captain, had both hit the woodwork before Simon Moore denied Harvey Barnes an equaliser. George Williams’ poor touch provided the opening for Sharp to make history.
“Billy anticipates on their lad making the mistake and he puts it in,” Knill said. “That’s what made it a great goal. That anticipation that he showed.
“We demand more than just goals or things like that though. We demand that players work hard. When people see our best player running around, they really buy into it. Billy gives everything, every single time he goes out there. That’s why we’re all delighted for him.”
United, who saw Ethan Ebanks-Landell succumb to a hamstring problem during the warm-up, went close again through Fleck before Sharp hit the target again following good work by Paul Coutts.
“We’re not a team that sits back and worries about the opposition,” Knill said. “We’ve got attacking players so why not put themselves in positions they feel comfortable in? Behind them, we’ve got players who are happy coming over the halfway line. The stats are ridiculous to be fair and we’re hopeful that can carry us on a level above as well.”