It reveals much about the story of Sheffield United’s season that, as Billy Sharp acknowledged, the euphoria of victory was tinged with anger and regret.
Because, even if this wholly convincing display against promotion chasing Walsall represents a coming-of-age moment, it has probably come far too late to rescue what, so far at least, has been a bitterly disappointing campaign.
“It’s frustrating because that’s what we’ve needed all year,” Sharp conceded. “To go ahead, get on top and then see the game out. It was never going to be easy but we showed some bottle, some character. We had to come out and show what we are about.”
Although goals from Chris Basham and Sharp lifted Nigel Adkins’ side to eighth in the League One table, the eight point gap between themselves and the play-off positions appears insurmountable with only six fixtures left. Nevertheless United, whose own challenge has been undermined by crippling inconsistency and countless missed opportunities, demonstrated they are still, in the words of their most prolific marksman, “up for the fight.”
“It’s a long shot but, you never know what might happen if we win our remaining games,” Sharp continued. “We’ve got six left and we need to win those. I hear what people are saying but we are professional footballers and that means we should never, ever give-up. It wouldn’t be right if we did.”
United went about their business with an industry, energy and vibrancy which Walsall, despite entering the contest searching for a fourth consecutive victory in the competition, proved unable to handle. But arguably the most impressive aspect of their performance was its professionalism and, as assistant manager Andy Crosby later explained, cerebral edge. The visitors are the most technically gifted team in the competition but, during some detailed pre-match analysis, United’s coaching staff detected a physical weakness which Basham’s deployment in a more advanced role was designed to exploit. The midfielder responded by scoring one goal and, after heading home Matt Done’s inviting far post cross, creating another. From that moment on United, pressing, chasing and hustling with an urgency which would turn Jurgen Klopp green with envy, seldom looked back. The trick now though, having won only five of their last eleven outings, will be demonstrating the same qualities when Gillingham visit Bramall Lane this weekend.
“We should be winning most of our games at home,” Sharp said. “The pitch is fantastic and, when we start like we did out there, we need to stay professional and tight. We need consistency and momentum. Burton have had that and they are right up there. We haven’t and we’re not. We haven’t won back to back games since December and that’s not good enough. When you win four in a row, which is the type of thing I’m talking about, it actually becomes hard to lose.”
That, piecing together four wins in succession, is something United have managed only once all season. A figure which goes a long way towards explaining why, despite being installed as title favourites following Adkins’ appointment 10 months ago, their much anticipated push for a top two finish has failed to materialise. But there were much more encouraging signs here.
David Edgar’s return from international duty was welcome - United have not kept a clean sheet in the league without the Canadian since October - but Alex Baptiste’s presence ensured their back three possessed a truly aggressive edge. The centre-half, whose loan from Middlesbrough has been interrupted by a hamstring complaint, is a proper defender. Someone prepared to take an elbow and put his head in where it hurts.
“It’s hard to press like that but we need to do it and there is a way to do it too,” Sharp said. “We’ve been working on it in training and the fans will back you all day long if they can see you doing it so that definitely helps.”
Done and Che Adams, whose partnership with Sharp is improving week on week, went close before Basham converted a centre which Walsall’s centre-halves dared not touch for fear of turning home themselves. Soon after, Sharp dispatched a powerful volley beyond Neil Etheridge after Basham had wreaked havoc around the opposition’s box. Walsall established some rhythm during the second-period but, barring some dangerous set-piece situations, were kept at arms-length.
“Bash was brilliant out there,” Sharp said. “He got the man-of-the-match, a goal and an assist. I’m buzzing for him.
“I like to score goals like the one a couple of weeks back (against Crewe Alexandra) when Reidy (Louis Reed) put the ball in. But I was saying to my dad the other day, I’m scoring different types of goals now. It’s probably a sign I’m getting older and more mature.
“Before, when I was younger, perhaps I was a little bit naive. I just used to get in the six yard box and stay there all the time rather than sometimes dropping back a little bit.”
Sheffield United: Long 6, Basham 8, Flynn 7, Coutts 6, Sharp 7, Done 7 (Woolford 88), McEveley 7, Baptiste 8 (McGahey 57, 7), Adams 7 (Calvert-Lewin 90), Edgar 7, Hammond 8. Not used: Howard, Reed, Whiteman, Kelly.
Walsall: Etheridge 7, Demetriou 6, Taylor 6 (Forde 74, 6), Pennington 6, Downing 6, Chambers 7, Mantom 6 (Lalkovic 74, 6), Bradshaw 6, Henry 6, Flanagan 6 (Hiwula 46, 6). Not used: MacGillivray, Preston, Morris, Kinsella.
Referee: Lee Swabey (Devon), 7