Match Analysis: Billy Sharp’s brace helps Sheffield United pass their test of graft and guile at fellow promotion contenders Norwich City
It was early in the morning, long before they combined to produce this compelling match, when Sheffield United signalled the uneasy truce in their psychological war with Daniel Farke's side had come to an end.
As Norwich City's squad arrived at Carrow Road to prepare for the fixture, a member of the visitors' staff was already performing a makeover of the away dressing room after deciding, with Chris Wilder's tacit approval, that its colour scheme would not do.
The pictures of past victories and goal celebrations he used to cover the bright pink walls, presumambly designed to lower testosterone levels among opposition players, laid the foundations for a courageous performance which saw United claim a point both managers acknowledged was ultimately deserved.
It was fitting, given the grit and determination they displayed, that Billy Sharp marked the first of his two goals with a celebration devised by an old mate from the amateur game.
"I recently met up with my old Sunday League team, Middlewood Rovers, for a reunion," the United, explaining why he rolled a sock signed by WWE star Mick Foley over his hand, said. "I’ve not seen some of them since I was 12 years old. I had a great day with them.
"One of them was mad on wrestling and he was begging me 'please do it' all week. He bought it online, I think it cost him about 40 quid because it's got the guy's autograph on it. He's going to be gutted because I gave it away to one of the fans so, if we can get it back for him, that would be great."
Although some of the play was of breathtaking quality, Sharp twice hauling United off the canvas after first Onel Hernandez and then Teemu Pukki had edged City in front, yesterday's contest proved as much a test of concentration, character and focus than it did skill. Farke, responsible for constructing a team as cunning as it is captivating, set the tone for what would prove a fascinating afternoon when he called for Emi Buendia, his Argentine midfielder, to be granted extra protection by referees. Wilder responded by insisting the officials, not the German, should be the arbiters of what passes for an acceptable challenge while Tim Krul continued the chicanery by delaying the penalty which saw Sharp open his account following Buendia's barge on Enda Stevens.
Revealing United are also partial to a trick or too, Wilder said: "It was great to see all the posters up when we got into the changing area. Carl (Hopwood), who takes care of all our gear, deserves to take the credit for that one and he'd clearly worked really hard. Not only is he the best kitman in the business, he's obviously a really good decorator as well."
Beneath the skullduggery, despite the increasingly abrasive nature of their rivalry, United and City command each other's respect. By the time the action was brought to a halt, it was abundantly clear why.
Hernandez's opener, after he had seen Dean Henderson parry a long-range effort around the foot of the post, came following a scintillating interchange involving Pukki who later produced an audacious finish from Max Aarons' cross.
In between, Sharp had refused to be distracted by Krul's theatrics, drawing upon every last ounce of his experience to convert from the spot.
"If I was the goalkeeper, I'd probably do exactly the same, trying to play the mind-games," the 32-year-old said. "Fair play to him, he’s a great goalkeeper. I just think he went a little bit too far and lost his focus. Actually, it probably helped me. I've managed to get the better of him because I ignored it and kept mine."
United, handing a full debut to Gary Madine and Kieran Dowell his first league start, initially struggled to establish a foothold as City impressed with their speed of thought and foot. But as the afternoon wore on, they began to fathom out the hosts' approach. Indeed, when Pukki looped the ball over Henderson and into the far corner of the net, Wilder's men were in the ascendancy. The calibre of the tactics, combined with the manner in which they were implemented by those involved, confirmed why third-placed United and City in second are both promotion contenders.
Explaining the thought process behind his equaliser, crafted by substitute Mark Duffy, Sharp said: "I know he has got the quality to do that. Its a great ball and that's what allowed me to score.
"I think Tim was expecting me to head it back across goal because that's what strikers get told to do. but I just thought I'd be able to nip it in at the near post."
"It was a really enjoyable game," Sharp, who has now scored 19 times since August, said. "We knew it was going to be tough. Norwich are a really good team and top end of the table for a reason. They’ve got some very good players and the belief we showed was great."
Norwich City: Krul, Godfrey, Zimmermann, Vranic, Lewis, Buendia (Cantwell 89), Stiepermann (Rhodes 89), Trybull, Pukki, Hernandez, Aarons. Not used: McGovern, McLean, Passlack, Hanley, Srbeny.Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham, Egan, O'Connell, Stevens, Baldock, Norwood, Fleck, Dowell (Duffy 60), Sharp (Washington 90), Madine (McGoldrick 60). Not used: Moore, Coutts, Stearman, Johnson..Referee: James Linington (Newport).