VIDEO: Sheffield United youngster David Brooks comes of age on biggest stage after starring in Steel City Derby victory over Wednesday
Two hours before kick-off, as he made his way from the safety of Sheffield United's team coach and ran the gauntlet of vitriol directed his way by hostile fans of Wednesday, David Brooks looked nervous.
A man of 20 who could pass for a boy of 16, his real breakthrough came at the Toulon Tournament in the summer and now, after catching the eye in pre-season, he was faced with the reality of making only his second league start in one of the biggest games there is.
Since being released by Manchester City’s academy in 2014, Brooks’ career has been focused on occasions like this.
Every whack in training from a defender he’d nutmegged moments earlier; every bitterly cold afternoon spent with United’s U23s at Stocksbridge’s Bracken Moor ground on the top of one of Sheffield’s many hills.
All for this.
There were doubts. Despite a superb full league debut the week previous at home to Norwich - when he, predictably, megged a visiting defender before seeing his shot saved - he may not, probably would not, have played if Billy Sharp and Clayton Donaldson had been fit.
Others wondered if the stage was too big; the pressure, the attention, the pure passion of a derby bringing Sheffield’s two clubs together again after five years, almost more divided than ever.
But Brooks was ready. Chris Wilder, the United manager, knew it. His assistant Alan Knill, who walked off with his arm around the youngster after the warm up, knew it. And Brooks, despite his body saying otherwise as he left the coach, knew it too.
Time to show it, then. Brooks kicked off the game at 1.15pm and barely three minutes had passed when he’d helped define it; running fearlessly at Wednesday’s Tom Lees, freedom and adrenalin coursing through his veins.
After shifting on to his weaker right foot - Brooks was such an unknown that maybe Wednesday didn’t know - Lees brought him down. Brooks rolled the ball behind him. John Fleck smashed it home. United were in business.
“Obviously, it’s a nice feeling to play and do well in a game like this,” Brooks admitted. “Hopefully it continues. I’m disappointed not to score, but delighted with the win. The team, and the fans, deserved it. The three points were the main objective as a collective and a team. But if you win your individual wars, that’s a real bonus as well.”
Jack Hunt, the Wednesday right back, will have the scars for some time to come, especially from one brilliant piece of play that encapsulated all that is good about Brooks, and should have put United out of sight.
At 2-1 ahead and with Wednesday pushing for an equaliser, Chris Basham swung with his left and cleared the ball towards the touchline, just over the halfway line. Brooks gets to the ball first, with his back to goal, and Hunt pushes him over. The United man regains his balance, keeps the ball in play and, almost in one poetic motion, takes a touch to control it with his right and one to push it through Hunt’s legs with his left.
Brooks was away before the Owls man could even spin around and if he didn’t know what was coming, plenty did; Ioan Evans, the former Blades defender, tweeted after that he’d been on the end of a few and Jo Cummings, a former teammate of Brooks in the U23s before joining Charlton, added: “No-one is safe.”
The only shame is that the move didn’t end in the goal it deserved; Brooks’ lofted pass forced Clarke to take a touch, and he shanked his shot over the bar. It looked a huge moment in the game when Wednesday’s Lucas Joao equalised soon after. Mark Duffy’s stunner, a minute and 47 seconds later, showed United have the attitude as well as the ability to prevail in the Championship and Clarke’s fourth - assisted, of course, by Brooks with a helping hand from Wednesday’s centre-halves - put the icing on Wilder’s birthday cake, after he turned 50 on Saturday.
“I thought Leon should have been man of the match to be fair,” Brooks, clutching the Sky man of the match award in the Hillsborough tunnel, said.
“He’s a big, strong lad so I can move off him; any of the strikers here I can play off and get into the positions I need to be in.
“I just hope it continues now. I just try and enjoy all my football, wherever I play and whatever level I play. I try and do the same things, do everything right. It was a hostile atmosphere, the first I’ve been in since breaking into the first team, and it’s different - being booed and stuff is all new.
“But I just took it on the chin a little and once you start playing, you just get on with it. I think I had a good game and, bar a goal, I thought I did well.”
With that significant understatement Brooks was off, back to the team coach, looking much happier than he had a few hours ago, and celebrating with a protein bar ahead of Wednesday night's game at home to Wolves. The man who looks 16 maybe wouldn’t have been served a beer anyway.
But a few more displays like this, on the big stage, in a red and white shirt, and he’ll never have to buy one in Sheffield again.