Only Don King, boxing’s high priest of hyperbole, could probably come close to overselling tonight’s match at Bramall Lane between Sheffield United and Middlesbrough. But amid all the talk about Chris Wilder’s return to the stadium where he won hearts, minds and promotions before leaving 12 months ago, this was ultimately about the football.
United produced their brilliant best, with goals from Sander Berge, Billy Sharp, Jack Robinson and Morgan Gibbs-White lifting them to fifth in the table. Middlesbrough? Well, they didn’t. Even Folarin Balogun’s consolation effort came about following a rare slip by the usually immaculate Wes Foderingham.
“Excellent,” was Paul Heckingbottom’s postgame verdict, proving he is a master of the under-statement as well as a gifted manager. “Now it’s on to the next one.”
While Wilder reflected on a nightmare homecoming, Heckingbottom basked in the glory of his coming of age moment. Because, make no mistake whatsoever, given its implications and who it came against, that’s exactly what it was.
“We didn’t deserve anything,” Wilder acknowledged. “They were miles better than us in every department.”
Speaking to the media over the weekend, Wilder had attempted to persuade journalists this would be business as usual. He was probably also trying to persuade himself. Even Heckingbottom, who initially joined United’s coaching staff at Wilder’s behest, confessed facing the club he has supported since childhood would be a deeply emotional experience.
It threatened to be a test of his tactical acumen too. Middlesbrough, adopting a broadly similar strategy to the one Wilder had employed so effectively during United’s march from the third to the first tier of the English game in the space of only three seasons, found themselves up against opponents with an even better understanding of its complexities.
Aided and abetted by some careless work by the visitors, United put that knowledge to good effect - seizing control of the game by netting twice in as many minutes before continuing to run riot after the break.
The first, scored midway through the opening period by midfielder Berge, was created by Sharp.
Released by Robinson’s throw, he surged down the flank before flashing a powerful centre across Joe Lumley’s area which fell kindly for the Norwegian after striking Marc Bola’s back.
Wilder was still shaking his head inside the technical area when United pounced again. Gibbs-White, who later drew a smart save from Lumley, opened his body as if preparing to shoot. But he had something else in mind and, after a wrong-footing Midlesbrough’s rearguard with a delicate feint, instead slid the ball towards the onrushing Sharp who netted for the 15th time this season.
After seeing their two most creative performers combine in devastating fashion, United should have stretched their lead further following a dreadful miss by Andraz Sporar.
Having seen the Slovenian blaze over from close-range, Gibbs-White showed Middlesbrough’s rearguard a clean pair of heels but failed to beat Lumley while John Egan headed over at the far post early in the second-half.
Robinson swept home following an Oliver Norwood corner before Gibbs-White’s impudent finish, after Balogun had reduced the deficit, ensured the scoreline reflected United’s dominance and saw Middlesbrough slip to eighth.