Billy Sharp provided a glimpse into the mindset which turned Sheffield United into such a formidable proposition last season following Friday’s victory over Malaga FC.
“That’s 19 games unbeaten now,” the captain, adding results from their first two friendlies into the equation, said.
“We finished strongly to win the title and now we’re looking to carry that run on.”
The conclusion to be drawn from Sharp’s comments is that there is no such thing, at least as far as Chris Wilder and his squad are concerned, as a meaningless game. It is exactly that philosophy which, less than 72 hours after returning from a training camp in Marbella, prompted the fightback which saw them maintain their 100 per start to this summer’s warm-up programme.
“That was exactly the type of fixture we wanted,” Wilder said. “A proper game with nothing given. Lots of times, teams from a higher division come to clubs lower down the leagues and don’t reach their usual standards. They go through the motions and go out through the back door. That’s not something wanted to do or were willing to do either as what you’ve seen out there has shown.”
United fell behind when Chris O’Grady caressed the ball home after meeting Delial Brewster’s centre before goals from Jack O’Connell and David Brooks turned the contest on its head. Brooks’ effort, which capped an exciting cameo, underlined exactly why Wilder suspects he can force his way into United’s plans next season and confirmed the wisdom of his decision to let the teenager continue his development at Bramall Lane.
“Jack, we all know what he does and what he brings to the table,” Wilder said. “Brooksy, we’re just pleased to have another talented player in the group. He’s been showing that behind the scenes, he was showing it towards the end of last season and also over the summer. Now, he’s got to carry it on.”
Although Samir Carruthers was their most effective performer, it was two of United’s home-grown players who dominated the post-match agenda. Brooks, who had been scheduled to join Chesterfield on loan until Wilder aborted that agreement, impressed with his poise and pace after being introduced during the closing stages. Louis Reed found himself in the uncomfortable position of playing against his parent club after also being brought on.
“We were determined to win,” Wilder said, “And Chesterfield were determined to win as well. Credit to them, they are a good team. They gave it everything and it was a good local game. Perfect for this stage.”
Wilder, speaking after John Fleck’s goal had put United’s Primera División opponents to the sword on a wooded hilltop near the Andalusian town of Coín, admitted it is “impossible” to win anything during pre-season. But, the 48-year-old conceded, “there it plenty to be lost.” United began building for their first taste of Championship football since 2011 earlier in the day when it was announced that Sharp, Chris Basham and Paul Coutts had all agreed two year contracts with Kieron Freeman signing a deal until 2020.
Basham marked the occasion by nutmegging O’Grady on the touchline before bamboozling his former team mate with a deft Cruyff turn. But it was at the other end of the pitch, at least during the early exchanges, where he made his presence felt the most; hooking the ball away from Charlie Wakefield as the Chesterfield youngster primed to shoot from close-range.
With James Hanson (calf), George Baldock (ankle) and Ched Evans (hip) absent through injury, Wilder included a raft of academy graduates, including Regan Slater, Sam Graham and Jake Wright Jr on the bench. Mark Duffy was again absent because his partner has just given birth.
A blast of invective from Dion Donohue following a routine offside decision confirmed Chesterfield, just like United, were taking this fixture seriously. Indeed, following half chances for Leon Clarke and Sharp, Gary Caldwell’s side controlled the majority of the first-half. Richard Stearman, one of five new players recruited by Wilder since the transfer window re-opened, was more busy than he would have liked. United’s midfield, usually so fluid, struggled to build any sort of rhythm.
Against that backdrop of strangely disjointed football, it was no surprise when O’Grady converted from just outside the six yard box in the 32nd minute.
O’Connell glanced wide from a corner as United looked to drag themselves back on level terms. The centre-half could, probably should, have scored. But, had he done so, the half-time scoreline would not have reflected Chesterfield’s superiority.
United improved after the break but, had substitute Gozie Ugwu not conspired to hit the post when it seemed easier to score, would have found themselves further behind.
O’Connell ensured United took full advantage of that reprieve by threading a low 72nd minute shot past Joe Anyon’s outstretched palm and inside his right-hand post to drag them level before Brooks drove at Chesterfield’s rearguard and found the back of the net.
“We could have gone in front early on but got caught out and that gave them a lift,” Wilder said. “But I thought we had enough of the ball and, crucially, showed that attitude and desire we demand here.”