Chris Wilder sounded like he was delivering an acceptance speech at the Oscars when, having just watched Sheffield United climb back to the top of the League One table, he purposefully thanked every member of his matchday squad.
True, this emphatic victory over AFC Wimbledon was only made possible because they all contributed. But, even though he tried his best to ensure otherwise, it was inevitable certain individuals would be singled out.
One of those, John Fleck, has been an almost permanent fixture in United’s starting 11 since arriving at Bramall Lane seven months ago. However, in keeping with Wilder’s edict that the team always comes first, Fleck preferred to eulogise about Jake Wright and James Hanson despite scoring a delightful goal himself.
Hanson, making his first appearance for United after leaving Bradford City, marked the occasion with a well-taken first-half effort and was a domineering presence at both ends of the pitch.
Wright, recalled following a spell on the sidelines, went about his business in more under-stated fashion but was equally effective against Neal Ardley’s gutsy but hopelessly out-gunned side.
“I thought James was absolutely brilliant, a real handful,” Fleck said. “You see what he does during a game, and his heading is unbelievable. It’s great for him to get a goal on his debut.”
Hanson dovetailing well with Billy Sharp and, after United’s captain had claimed his 19th of the season, stretched United’s lead with a clinical finish. Fleck and Caolan Lavery later put the result beyond doubt, and Wright’s performance at the back meant Wimbledon, when they did get forward, never really threatened to break through.
Wright has yet to taste defeat in a United jersey, and it was no coincidence that his return after a four-match absence coincided with a deserved clean sheet as Wilder’s men ended their recent disappointing run.
“Jake Wright came back in and I thought he was outstanding,” Fleck said. “He’s just a big voice out on the pitch and helps everyone out. He’s got real leadership.”
With his jet-black boots, sensible haircut and jersey tucked neatly into waist-high shorts, Hanson is a throwback to the days when footballers cared more about their obligations on the pitch rather than image off it. A few eyebrows were raised when Wilder spent £150,000 acquiring his services during the transfer window. Tellingly, though, not among his former colleagues at Valley Parade who have spent the past seven-and-a-half years benefiting from Hanson’s ability to buffet opponents and, when the situation demands, help out in defence.
“He can make a bad ball a good one,” Fleck said. “Sometimes, if you are stuck in a bit of trouble, you can hook it on and big James can bring it down or move it on.”
10 YEARS ON
A decade ago, United were preparing for a top-flight fixture with Tottenham Hotspur while Wimbledon, who were founded in 2002, confronted Tonbridge Angels in the Isthmian League.
Despite recognising his own club’s remarkable journey, Ardley acknowledged that direction of travel might be about to change.
“What Chris’ lads have produced out there is the benchmark for us to try and reach,” he said. “He’s a good guy and he’s doing an excellent job here.”
United, Fleck admitted, have fallen below their own high standards in recent weeks. But, after failing to win any of their previous three outings, an impromptu meeting during the build-up helped them slip back into gear.
“We have spoke about the last couple of weeks not being good enough, results-wise and performance-wise,” he said. “So we all came together last week and had a chat, and thankfully it’s paid off today. Hopefully, that form can continue.”
“The manager was involved as well. It wasn’t a big thing, just a general chat and people opened up if they had anything to say,”
Sharp settled any pre-match nerves when he prodded home from close range before either United or Wimbledon had broken sweat. The striker, who turned 31 yesterday, pounced on James Shea’s error before Hanson converted a Kieron Freeman cross.
Fleck danced through Wimbledon’s rearguard and swept the ball past Shea before Lavery struck in added time.
“It’s always nice to score but he most important thing was to get three points,” Fleck said. “Thankfully we’ve done that.”