Sheffield United: How one incident at Northampton Town provided an insight into The Blades character
When Sheffield United's coach reached the brow of the hill staring down on Sixfields, the DJ entertaining supporters in a bar outside the ground made an impromptu change to his play list.
Cut Bad Manners. Cue Tina Turner belting out 'Simply the Best.' It was a reminder, as Chris Wilder and Alan Knill alighted the bus, that the locals are still in awe of what the duo achieved for their football club.
Three years after leading Northampton Town to the League Two title, and two after shaking Sheffield United back into life, Wilder and his assistant returned to the stadium where they secured the first of two promotions with the visitors. This nondescript ground, on the outskirts of a retail park crammed full of chain restaurants, has been the setting for some of the most memorable moments in their coaching careers. So, after leading United from the third to the first tier in the space of only 38 months, it seemed a fitting place to continue preparations for the new Premier League season. Which, as Oliver Norwood reminded, is now looming large on the horizon.
"Everything we do is about getting ready for Bournemouth on the opening day," the midfielder said, after scoring both of the game's goals from the penalty spot. "That's the only thing that matters. It's what it's all about.
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"I thought we played well and pretty much dominated from start to finish. But, looking at the bigger picture, the best thing was getting back into a winning habit."
Although Norwood's assessment of the contest was a shade harsh on Northampton - even Wilder acknowledged they had traded blows with his team during the early exchanges - United were undoubtedly the superior team. After succumbing to Burton Albion in midweek, only four days after beating Real Betis at the Estadio Algarve, Portugal, their dominance grew as the match wore on, with Norwood netting twice before the break. David McGoldrick, who threatened to turn the afternoon into a private duel between himself and Keith Curle's goalkeeper David Cornell, again impressed in attack although, as it did at the Pirelli Stadium, his finishing left a little to be desired. Sandwiched in between two good chances for the centre-forward, whose willingness to roam has been a feature of United's play during their opening three warm-up games, John Fleck also tested Cornell with an angled drive while new signing Callum Robinson's pace was again in evidence; even on playing surface the groundstaff, at the behest of the opposition's coaching staff, had deliberately allowed to dry out.
"That's fine," Wilder reminded after drawing attention to the ploy. "You do what you have to do and we'd probably do the same in their position."
Although Luke Freeman also caught the eye after being introduced - the former Queens Park Rangers midfielder again displaying his willingness to run at defenders and try a trick or two - arguably the most insightful moment of United's performance came towards the end of the opening period. Norwood's verbal exchange with Cornell, before converting the second of his efforts, reminded defeat - even when there are no points at stake - does not sit comfortably with either Wilder or his players.
"He had a few things to say," Norwood said, brushing off Cornell's as "a load of old noise." "I didn't really listen to him, I just ignored it really. But I did tell him 'I've scored them past a lot better 'keepers than you so just get back on your line and get ready to pick the ball out of the net. Joking aside, it's just what happens during games, just a bit of fun."
"We're a team that likes to win," he continued. "The gaffer had a bit of a go at us (after Burton) about the importance of maintaining standards and he was right to do so. All of us are winners. People who know me will tell you I'm pretty relaxed at home but even there, with my lad, I don't like to lose and the missus often has a go at me about it.
"It's the same with the rest of us. Be it a game of pool, table tennis or five-a-side at the training ground, we all want to win. That's what he (Wilder) has instilled in us. If you're not like that, then you'll fall by the wayside here."
With Wilder in the away dug-out and former United defender Curle in charge of the hosts, Saturday's fixture was a friendly in the truest sense of the word. It was more entertaining than most too, until a flurry of substitutions during the closing stages destroyed the game's rhythm. But with Northampton displaying the same tenacity which served their manager so well during his own illustrious career, it was a more than worthwhile exercise.
Andy Williams' driving runs ensured Northampton made an encouraging start before the momentum inevitably swung back in United's favour. Still, every so often Curle's players issued a reminder they were not content to be a support act inside their own stadium.
Before Norwood converted the first of his two penalties, McGoldrick and Fleck both enjoyed chances. Although Cornell did well to parry away the latter's angled drive, following John Lundstram's patient build-up, McGoldrick will have been disappointed not to score at least once before the interval. First, having drifted almost unnoticed into a dangerous position, he swept the ball over the bar from the edge of the box before glancing a header, from Jack O'Connell's cross, wide.
After the change of ends, McGoldrick's touch and poise hypnotised Northampton's defence as he glided through their rearguard but Cornell kept his focus, smothering his shot from close range. Freeman tried something similar moments later but the end result was the same.
Although Ryan Watson went close to reducing the deficit with a looping free-kick which rebounded off the woodwork, United had already seized control thanks to Norwood's prowess from dead ball situations. After Robinson had been tripped as he surged into the area, the Northern Ireland international fired the ball into the bottom left hand corner of the net from 12 yards out. When Kieron Freeman was also upended, he won his battle of wills with Cornell by placing it into exactly the same spot.
"We've got to keep that drive, with what we're about to go into," Norwood said. "If we don't, then we'll fall by the wayside because it's a brutal business. That's the way it's got to be, all of us driving it forward. That's what the gaffer has brought to the group."
Northampton Town: Cornell, Martin (Williams 64), Bunney, Lines (Oliver 46), Turnbull, Goode (Hall-Johnson 58), Hutton Pollock 68), Smith (Yebli 46), A Williams (Warburton 46), Watson (McWilliams 60), Hoskins (Simpson 67). Not used: Arnold, J Williams, Hughes.
Sheffield United: Moore, Stevens (Bryan 76), Fleck (Slater 87), O'Connell, Lundstram (Sharp 61), Robinson (L Freeman 46), Egan (Stearman 76), Jagielka (Basham 58), Norwood, McGoldrick (Clarke 61), K Freeman (Baldock 61). Not used: Dewhurst, Brunt, Boyes.
Referee: Andy Woolmer