Sheffield United: The two players who proved the '˜Championship snobs' wrong
They were supposedly too old, too pedestrian or simply too inexpensive to trouble even the most porous Championship defence.
But with no attacking partnership delivering more goals than Billy Sharp and Leon Clarke last season, Chris Wilder thinks his centre-forwards have proved an important point.
“There’s a lot of snobbery in the division,” the Sheffield United manager said. “A lot of people who seem to think, because you didn’t cost a fortune, that automatically means you can’t do the business.
“There were lots of people saying they wouldn’t be able to do it. Billy and Leon will have heard all the comments. So for them to come in at the start and do what they’ve done, that will probably have surprised a lot of people. Not me though. I always knew what they were capable of.”
Clarke, aged 33, finished the campaign as United’s leading scorer after hitting the target 19 times. Sharp, 12 months his junior, followed suit on 13 occasions; figures which were only matched by Bristol City’s Bobby Reid and Famara Diédhiou, a £5.3m signing from French club Angers.
Clarke and Sharp’s status as one of the competition’s most prolific double-acts can be attributed to three things. First, Wilder insisted, the players’ professionalism and work ethic. But United’s coaching staff must also share the credit because of the way they set-up the team.
“I think we create as many chances as anyone in the division,” Wilder continued. “It shows, I think, the way we try and play. We’re a team that forces openings and opportunities. In fairness, we should have got more goals than we have. But I’m talking across the board. Not about individuals.”
Both Clarke and Sharp wrote their names on the scoresheet during last weekend’s trip to City. The result, a 3-2 victory in the visitors’ favour, saw United finish 10th in the table despite operating on a budget which suggested they would be fighting relegation instead.
Although the likes of John Fleck, Mark Duffy and Jack O’Connell were acquired either on free transfers or for relatively modest sums, Clarke is probably the best example of how Wilder, together with his assistant Alan Knill and head of sports science Matt Prestridge, beat the financial odds.
Signed for £150,000 from Bury in 2016, he arrived at Bramall Lane with a reputation for promising much but delivering little in the upper echelons of English football. But, after overcoming injury, Clarke helped United secure promotion from League One before averaging a goal every 2.05 outings last term. A figure Middlesbrough’s Britt Assombalonga (£15m), Albert Adomah of Aston Villa (£5m) and Wolverhampton Wanderers Diogo Jota, on loan from Atlético Madrid, all failed to better.
“They’ve done well because they’ve turned-up, week in, week out,” Wilder said. “You can’t put a price on that. Not everyone does it but our lads here have turned up week in and week out and given everything.”