“Revenge,” Alfred Hitchcock once claimed, “Is sweet and not fattening.”
Six words which, when the dust settles on a fixture laced with psychological twists and suspenseful plot lines, will resonate with Billy Sharp and Gary Madine, whose puerile goading of Sheffield United’s captain came back to haunt him before a ball had even been kicked.
Given the significance of this match, not to mention the result’s implications for the race for promotion from League One, Bolton Wanderers manager Phil Parkinson was right to insist that Chris Wilder’s side needed no extra motivation before kick-off to produce their most complete performance of the 49-year-old’s reign. But there can be no doubt that, when footage emerged of Madine criticising both Sharp’s genes and girth earlier in the week, it meant United took to the pitch doubly determined to make the former Sheffield Wednesday centre-forward eat his words. Madine’s subsequent omission from the squad beaten, perhaps appropriately, by a goal in each half from Sharp meant it was United who laughed last and longest.
“I think he’s incredible,” John Fleck, Sharp’s team mate, said. “Especially at this level and that’s why he’s doing what he’s doing in the game. I’ve told him in the dressing room that I expect him to get to 30 this season, without a shadow of doubt. He said he wants at least five more to get to a personal milestone. But I think he’s got to get to 30 because he’s that good.”
Sharp’s 22nd and 23rd strikes of what is promising to become the most memorable campaign of his professional career moved United seven points clear at the top of the table and, as Fleck noted, to within five of the 200 landmark. Given the circumstances, they were probably among the most satisfying he has scored too. The taxi whisking Madine back to Greater Manchester - “He was ill,” Parkinson later revealed. “In no condition to play.” - would barely have reached the city limits when Sharp, a lifelong United supporter, converted his first of the afternoon before pouncing again from the penalty spot midway through the second period.
Fleck, whose interchange with Mark Duffy had earlier prised apart the division’s best defence, was also instrumental in propelling Wilder’s side to their first league victory over a major rival this term. But the former Coventry City midfielder was happy to let his team mate bask in the spotlight.
“His first finish was excellent,” Fleck said. “Myself and a lot of other players would probably have scuffed it.
“I played against him last year but I don’t think the team then was as good as it is now. He scored against Coventry although I think that one came off his back to be fair. He just keep on getting into the right positions. He works hard and is always running. But he knows where to be and when.”
MANAGERS AND MINDGAMES
Wilder and Parkinson had insisted they would let their players do the talking before last weekend’s battle at Bramall Lane. But both, with varying degrees of subtlety, attempted to get inside the opposition’s heads during a fascinating build-up. The jousting continued following the final whistle too with Parkinson, arguing his opposite number benefits from “an open cheque book” in the transfer market, insisting Samir Carruthers dived to win United’s penalty and bemoaning the official’s failure to punish Fleck for an earlier challenge on Tom Thorpe.
“There were two big incidents that went against us but equally we didn’t show enough quality, second half,” he said. “It’s a difficult place to come, Bramall Lane, but you need your strongest team out there and we were depleted. “Without making any excuses, we’ve had a few things go against us in the build up to this game and you need a smooth, clear run-up to games like this and it didn’t happen for us. Key decisions, I thought, went against us in the game, especially the penalty because that was a clear dive.
“David Wheater has put his arms in the air straight away to get out of the way and the lad’s just bought the penalty, so at 2-0 down it was always going to be a tough ask. Billy’s a good player at this level and everyone knows that. He’s scored goals at this level before and he’d have been pumped up whatever the build up to the game.”
Wilder, predictably, had a different take on things.
“The whole club has got its head down and do the talking on the pitch,” he countered. “I was a bit disappointed first half, I thought we got caught up in the fight with them, exactly how they wanted us to play. It was difficult.
“We had a few words at half-time, calmed ourselves down and I thought second half we completely dominated the game. That’s the way I see it, anyway.
“Other people might see it different but I’m not so sure 27,000 people will see it that different. I thought it was a fully deserved three points and a team, especially second half, that has dismantled a decent side, with a lot of good players, pretty comprehensively. When we don’t play very well, I say it as it is and when we play well, we say that we were pretty good. No mind games, just as it is.”
GRIT AND A GEAR CHANGE
United, who boast the most prolific attack in the competition, were made to work hard during the opening period of the game despite seizing the initiative when Mark Beevers’ slip allowed Fleck to send Sharp scampering through.
Kieron Freeman also went close after Jake Wright had scooped over the crossbar following a James Hanson header but Bolton, despite creating few clear cut openings, enjoyed plenty of possession and peppered Simon Moore’s six yard box with a series of aerial balls. After the break, though, United grew in stature while the visitors failed to move through the gears. The introduction of Carruthers saw the momentum slip further away from them and it was the substitute whose tangle with Wheater led to the award of the decisive spot-kick.
“I think we all understand, when everyone says it’s a massive game, that nothing is going to get won yet,” Fleck said. “But we’ve just got to keep fighting and driving it on.”