For one brief moment, as Lee Evans prepared to shoot and Sheffield United's net was yawning, it appeared as if the story was going to be about the Wigan Athletic midfielder and his transfer paperwork.
But Evans missed and his former club, who thought the Wales international was unable to take part in this New Year’s Day contest, went on to produce the type of performance and result Chris Wilder hopes will set the tone for 2019.
Goals from David McGoldrick, Mark Duffy and Billy Sharp – now the most prolific league scorer in all four divisions since the turn of the century – lifted the visitors to third in the Championship.
But it was United’s durability, not the table or the captain’s record breaking achievement, which pleased Wilder the most.
“To begin with, they probably had the best chance of the game,” he said, referring to Evans’ attempt during a rare spell of Wigan pressure. “So when we scored, it was maybe against the run of play. But then, second-half, we went through the levels.”
It was fitting, after McGoldrick had broken the deadlock and Duffy provided a timely reminder of his qualities following Kieran Dowell’s arrival from Everton last week, that Sharp had the final word. The 32-year-old found the back of the net for the 220th time since the year 2000, surpassing Rickie Lambert’s figure of 219, in typically clinical fashion.
“Billy just keeps on going,” Wilder continued. “He deserves everything that comes his way. But the good thing is, others are scoring as well. Because he’ll just keep driving on.”
Perhaps the best barometer of the fixture was Paul Cook’s demeanor. Clutching a disposable cup of tea, until it was hurled into an advertising hoarding following a particularly careless pass, Wilder’s close friend and counterpart spent the majority of the afternoon in a state of nervous agitation. Cook was waving his arms, gesticulating furiously and luring the fourth official into conversation.
But, after McGoldrick had scored his ninth of the season and fourth in five games, Cook appeared resigned to the fact he was in for a long afternoon.
And so it proved as United, who were convinced Evans’ loan from Bramall Lane to the DW Stadium could not be made permanent until after the game, produced a performance bristling with creativity, purpose and, given the timing of their goals, an encouraging degree of spite.
“I was told the [EFL] office was closed,” Wilder said. “Clearly, it wasn’t. Seriously, there was never an issue of us trying to stop Lee from playing if he was allowed to. But, like I say, I was under the impression the deal would not be able to go through in time.”
Consistency, of both approach and selections, has been a hallmark of United’s work so far this term.
But with suspension ruling Chris Bashasm out of the trip to Greater Manchester, Martin Cranie was tasked with the job of deputising for Wilder’s most enterprising centre-half. The former Huddersfield Town and Middlesbrough defender, whose experience persuaded Wilder to award him an extended contract on the eve of this game, was the only change to the starting eleven which had beaten Blackburn Rovers three days earlier.
It quickly became apparent, as early as the second minute, why Cranie had been drafted-in ahead of Richard Stearman. He embarked on the type of driving run which has made Basham such a threat in recent months.
Only a carefully disguised shoulder barge on David McGoldrick, who had been tracking his colleague’s run, prevented the 32-year-old from carving-out a clear cut chance.
Cranie continued to provide a source of attacking opportunities, caressing a steady flow of well-chosen passes down Wigan’s left flank. He made his presence felt an the opposite end of the pitch too, producing an excellent headed clearance to stop Gavin Massey’s cross reaching Joe Garner.
“We were in control but I don’t want us to be just in control,” Wilder said. “They’re a good team, with good players. It’s not quite going for them at the moment so we reminded ourselves that, if we didn’t step it up, this could be a type of game that gets away from you.”
McGoldrick and Duffy put United in control with two different kinds of goal before Sharp reached his remarkable career landmark.
McGoldrick powered the ball into the roof of the net after Christian Walton had denied Duffy, who later produced an effortless finish from Sharp’s pass.
“David is showing what he’s about, Duff’s was probably the best counter-attacking goal we’ve got all season and Billy,” Wilder said, “Well, he just does what he does.”