Match Analysis: Winning their battle of wills with Bolton Wanderers underlined the growing maturity of Sheffield United’s promotion chasing squad
It was revealing, less than an hour after helping Sheffield United negotiate safe passage through this potential banana skin of a fixture, that Chris Basham refused to brush aside a question about their hopes for the season.
Rather than filibuster and prevaricate, instead of pretending the word does not exist in his footballing vocabulary, the defender acknowledged that, yes, promotion is the target before explaining why Chris Wilder's players are comfortable speaking in such terms.
"We're really enjoying being up at the top end of the table," he insisted. "It's a pleasure, there's no pressure, and every lad in the dressing room definitely fancies it. 'Bring it on,' that's what I say. Because all we are doing, let's be honest, is trying to be the best we can be."
Basham's admission, after goals from David McGoldrick and Billy Sharp had broken Bolton Wanderers' stubborn resistance, confirmed his team mates are inspired, not intimidated, by the challenges ahead. With 16 matches remaining, four of those against clubs also inside the top six, United are third in the Championship and only three points behind the leaders Norwich City.
But the victory over Wanderers, which briefly saw them climb to second until Daniel Farke's men swept past Leeds later that evening, was significant for another reason too. Twelve months ago, as their challenge for the Premier League began to unravel, United were harbouring doubts about the depth of quality at Wilder's disposal. One year later, as he watched Richard Stearman, Gary Madine and Kieran Dowell being summoned from the bench, Basham acknowledged those have now been expunged.
"This is the strongest group I have seen here," the defender continued. "And there’s no egos in there either. Everyone wants the same goal, we don't really talk about the possibility of going up, but we know everyone wants that.
"Look at the bench, the people the gaffer can bring in, we have got a bit of everything. Last season we were pushing, but if you look at our bench last season to this season, the core strength wasn’t there. That's probably why we had a little bit of a stutter. We've got rid of a few lads but we've developed and there's a lot of experience around."
That nous proved crucial against opponents who, until McGoldrick broke the deadlock and Sharp added a goal to his earlier assist, had thwarted United's efforts to establish their usual momentum. Although the scoreline suggests a routine afternoon, it was anything but the sort as the visitors chased, hassled and, for 45 minutes at least, confirmed why Wilder had warned there would be no correlation between Wanderers' lowly position in the table and the threat they might pose.
"We went in at half-time and we needed to speed things up a bit because we weren’t sloppy, just a little slow," Basham said. "This game has a funny habit of biting you on the a***, so the gaffer said make sure we get the opening goal.
"They are hard team to break down, they don’t score many goals, that’s their downfall for their team. They sat back and we had to force the issue, make sure we kept the back door shut. I thought we did that for most of the game."
There was a moment, midway through the first period, when United realised they could be in for a long 90 minutes had Wanderers netted first. Noticing several of his midfielders had shuffled upfield as they prepared for a free-kick, Phil Parkinson ushered them back into position behind the centre circle to protect the deadlock. Wilder must have been tempted to hook goalkeeper Dean Henderson and bring on his new signing Scott Hogan instead. But United's persistence and perseverance paid off when McGoldrick slid home Sharp's pass before his fellow centre-forward converted Oliver Norwood's set-piece.
United's captain, making the 500th league appearance of his career, has now scored 19 times times in the competition since August; as many goals as Wanderers have managed throughout their entire team.
"I still can’t believe that we had David McGoldrick on trial at the start of the season," Basham said, assessing the former Ipswich Town striker's partnership with Sharp. "He has knuckled down, played the most football he has played in a long time, and that’s credit to him and out staff for nurturing him the right way.
"Obviously, people keep saying it’s time for Billy to move on at the start of every season. But he just keeps proving everyone wrong. He just keeps scoring goals and pushing the team forward. There’s nothing better than having a fan as the skipper and, as everyone knows, he's always supported this club."
Wanderers' big chance came soon after the interval when Clayton Donaldson, a former United player, saw a header saved by Henderson at the near post.
"That’s a danger this team brings, they can be out of it all game, then have one big opportunity," Basham said. "Fortunately for us, they missed it but what it showed is why we can't look too far ahead.
“Yes, everyone has got ambition but we're also just taking it game by game and not looking at anything beyond what's next.
“The Championship is tough, Bolton was an example of that. But we’ve got more ammo now.”
Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham, Egan, O'Connell, Stevens, Baldock, Norwood, Fleck, Duffy (Stearman 76), Sharp (Dowell 86), McGoldrick (Madine 79).Not used: Moore, Lundstram, Johnson, Stearman, Hogan.
Bolton Wanderers: Matthews, Taylor, Lowe, Vela (Magennis 69), Hobbs, Connolly, O'Neil, Wheater, Connell, Ameobi, Donaldson. Not used: Buckley, Noone, Murphy, Wilson, Williams, Grounds.
Referee: Keith Stroud (Hampshire).Attendance: 26,131