The sparkling gold boots and bold pronouncements about what his future holds suggest James Wilson does not lack self-belief.
But confidence is worth little without talent and the finish which laid the foundations for this victory over a previously resurgent Norwich City confirmed why Sheffield United, producing their most complete display since the turn of the year, used a significant portion of Chris Wilder’s transfer budget to acquire the centre-forward’s services at the beginning of the transfer window.
The moment appeared to have passed when John Fleck’s corner was met by Chris Basham only for the ball to be half-cleared. Wilson, however, had other ideas and, after taking a split second to assess his options, calmly threaded it through a tangle of legs and into the back of Angus Gunn’s net.
Although substitute Clayton Donaldson later doubled the visitors’ advantage before Ivo Pinto’s header ensured a nervous finale, Wilson’s goal was the defining moment of a contest which delivered the result Wilder insisted - and Daniel Farke, whose team had given Chelsea an almighty FA Cup scare three days earlier, later acknowledged - United deserved.
“It felt great to get the team off to a good start and to get my career up and running too,” Wilson, making his full debut after arriving from Manchester United on loan, said. “I’m backing my form at the moment so I’m not really surprised to get one.
“Part of the team talk was that they were going to be tired after the other night. We pride ourselves on starting fast. The manager was clear about the importance of doing that here. That was a really good taste of what I’ve signed up to.”
Wilson’s curious mix of modern glamour and old-fashioned attitudes suggest he could be the perfect addition to a team which prides itself on hard work and, after climbing to sixth in the Championship table, has serious designs on reaching the Premier League.
Despite his choice of footwear, the former England under-21 international boasts a decidedly unkempt haircut and sometimes awkward gait. Yet, as his record for Old Trafford’s development squad over the past four months confirms, Wilson’s game is based on instinct and intelligence.
“Long term, the aim has got to be to try and knock on the door of the first team there,” he admitted. “I know there are lots of big names there and a few more coming- n but I’m backing my ability. Short to medium term, it’s getting us as high up the league as possible.”
Wilder, who celebrated wildly in front of the away contingent following the final whistle, will enjoy Wilson’s determination and sense of destiny. However, as both manager and player later stressed, arguably the most impressive aspect of United’s performance was its cohesiveness and fluency given that three members of their starting 11 were making their full debuts.
Lee Evans, previously of Wolverhampton Wanderers, brought a physical presence and eye for a pass at the base of midfield while, slightly further forward, Ryan Leonard bristled with pent-up energy after completing a protracted move from Southend.
John Fleck, who joined during the early days of Wilder’s reign, spread a veneer of quality across the entire operation.
“I thought the other lads did brilliant,” Wilson, attributing their immediate impact to the simplicity of Wilder’s approach, said. “They had a real drive about them and you can see they’re really good.”
“Being so clear, the instructions you get, showed, I think,” he continued. “That’s why we got that type of performance even with three debutants on the pitch. Everyone knows their own job and that makes it great to be a part of. You are expected to know your job and then that fits in with what everyone else is doing. It’s so effective.”
FAST START KEY
United actually arrived at Carrow Road on the back of a chequered sequence of results which had seen them take only seven points from their last 10 games. Wilder, with plenty of supporting evidence, maintained the quality of their play actually warranted far greater returns. But it is only possible to peddle a hard-luck message for so long so this victory was psychologically significant.
Wilson’s strike corroborated Wilder’s pre-match claim that his team was capable of prising apart a rearguard which had frustrated Antonio Conte’s men during Wednesday’s third-round replay at Stamford Bridge. It reminded Farke’s men that United , despite their disappointing returns en route to Norfolk, are genuine contenders for a top six place.
Although City pushed hard for an equaliser towards the end of the first period - James Maddison forcing Simon Moore to palm a free-kick around the post and Timm Klose flashing a low shot just wide - the visitors were much more convincing, with Leonard twice denied by Gunn in quick succession and Wilson going close with a header after combining well with Leon Clarke.
“All the lads are brilliant in the changing room and Clarkey is no different,” Wilson said. “We get on well on and off the pitch. In training, we work on partnerships all over the pitch. That’s one of the reasons why, I think, we got off to a fast start.”
Alex Tettey’s weak back pass presented Donaldson with the opportunity to stretch United’s advantage after Enda Stevens had struck the woodwork before Pinto reduced the deficit.
“Credit to them, they dug in and tried their best,” Wilson said. “But then we dug in and got the result I think we deserved in the end.”