Sheffield United: 'Billy Sharp can't cut it in the Premier League? Don't make me laugh'
Billy Sharp has spent the summer watching, reading and patiently waiting for the moment when, after seeing a flurry of new arrivals dominate the news agenda at Bramall Lane, he could prove a very important point.
That it arrived and was seized during Sheffield United's first match of the Premier League campaign - a fixture which marked their return to the competition following over a decade away - served as a reminder to those who have been belittling his talents that the centre-forward, the highest scoring player in English football this century, can pose the same type of threat to top-flight defences as those in the Championship.
Inevitably, after spending nearly £40m bolstering Chris Wilder's attacking options following their promotion last season, the talk ahead of United's trip to AFC Bournemouth had focused on some of those expensively assembled names. How, for example, would Oli McBurnie perform after becoming the club's record transfer signing? Could Callum Robinson - or, longer term, Lys Mousset - forge an effective partnership with the former Swansea City striker? Sharp, now aged 33 and supposedly in the autumn of his career, barely got a mention. There is no room for sentiment, plenty of self-appointed experts told us, at elite level.
What they forgot, however, is that Sharp is as adept at changing narratives as he is claiming goals. For each of the past two years, he has been forced to listen to people tell him he is now too old or too slow to be the difference-maker. And every single time, the critics have been forced to eat their words.
As Wilder acknowledged following Saturday's contest - which Sharp ensured ended in a 1-1 draw - the likes of McBurnie and Robinson represent the future for United. Time, being 23 and 24 respectively, is on their side. But as his effort two minutes from the end of normal time demonstrated, after Chris Mepham had earlier given Eddie Howe's team the lead, Sharp remains the most clinical finisher at the manager's disposal. Fact. End of argument.
The strike which ensured United's persistence and discipline did not go unrewarded, proved speed of thought can be even more effective than speed of foot in rarefied company. As the ball bounced around in the penalty box, Bournemouth's defence trying and failing to clear George Baldock's cross, it was Sharp who reacted first when his fellow substitute McBurnie saw an effort blocked seconds earlier. Having drifted into position and adjusting his body shape in anticipation of something falling his way, Sharp reacted quicker than anyone, prodding home from point blank range before sprinting towards the away supporters. A lifelong United fan himself, their captain, leader and already a legend wanted to celebrate his first goal on the greatest domestic stage of all with them. His people.
"He tries to steal my thunder all the time," Wilder joked afterwards. "Mr Sheffield United isn't he. Well, do you know what, I'll gladly let him steal it today."
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With Mepham also pouncing following a melee in the area, it seemed strange that a fixture which at times resembled a chess match was decided by two scruffy episodes. Even so, events inside The Vitality Stadium highlighted both the tests United must overcome to achieve survival and plenty of reasons, despite there being some obvious areas where they must improve, to suggest they can reach their target.
With a painfully sore throat making it difficult to issue instructions, Wilder spent much of the afternoon in locked in conversation with his assistant Alan Knill as they attempted to react to the tactical adjustments Howe was directing across the technical area. But United were proactive too, changing strategy and formation on several occasions after Mepham had converted following attempts by Nathan Ake and Callum Wilson.
Brawn, however, also had a part to play with the hulking presence of Joshua King, Jefferson Lerma and Phillip Billing making Bournemouth particularly dangerous midway through the opening period. Although the half was bookended by two fine chances for United - David McGoldrick and Robinson forcing saves from Aaron Ransdale - there were times when it felt like Howe's men were preparing to press even before they lost the ball.
When United discovered their rhythm, they became more effective. John Lundstram, a surprise selection in midfield, created another opening for McGoldrick but he dragged wide. Mepham, before handing Bournemouth the lead, made an important intervention to deny Enda Stevens.
But arguably the most impressive and encouraging aspect of United's display was the discipline they showed after falling behind. As Wilder and Knill delived deep into their box of tricks, those they were orchestrating remained focused and followed orders rather than going gung-ho. Then Sharp, fittingly, came to the fore.
"He scores goals doesn't he," Howe commented afterwards. He does. And will continue to do so.