If football was played purely with pounds, shilling and pence, rather than on pitches, then Chris Wilder freely admits that his Sheffield United side would sit towards the foot of the Championship table.
Instead, thanks to a combination of shrewd spending, character, spirit and ability, they began 2018 seventh in the standings and, based on the latest evidence on New Year’s Day at Derby County, a match for most sides in English football’s second tier.
Seven points seperated the two sides placed second and sixth in the table at kick-off and after an afternoon of pulsating action, a 1-1 stalemate may not have appeared a remarkable result. But although neither side could enjoy an advantage on the field, a cursory glance of the teamsheet before kick-off highlighted a vast chasm off it.
Derby, whose back four and goalkeeper alone against United boast a combined total of over 100 international caps, spent approximately £30million assembling the matchday 18 which drew with Wilder’s men. United have forked out around a tenth of that on the squad that won 12 of their first 17 Championship games with Leon Clarke, the Championship’s top scorer who cancelled-out £8m Matěj Vydra’s opener from the penalty spot, commanding a fee of around £150,000 when he joined from Bury.
“I come to places like here and Aston Villa and look at the back of the programme, and some of the names on there and who’s on the bench,” Wilder said, “and really, we shouldn’t be anywhere near where we are.
“But when we have belief in ourselves, we look a really good side. I’ve said to the players in there that sometimes I believe in them more than they believe in themselves, because there are some really good players in there who are fearless in their approach.
“The shape is good, it causes people problems, and we want to drive the game forward so hopefully we can move forward in 2018.
“We’re in the Championship for days like this, to come to places like this, so why wouldn’t we come, have a go and see where it takes us?”
Wilder’s last away league match against a team managed by Gary Rowett came just over four years ago, when his Oxford United side beat Rowett’s Burton Albion in League Two, and both have enjoyed a rapid rise since.
Rowett’s exploits at the Pirelli Stadium earned him the Birmingham City job before he was unceremoniously sacked after leading them to seventh in the table, while Wilder has established a reputation as one of English football’s brightest managers after following success at Oxford and Northampton with United’s League One title win last term.
So it was little surprise that the second meeting between the two sides this season, after United’s 3-1 victory at Bramall Lane back in August of last year, was an engaging, pulsating affair, helped by a boisterous 30,003 crowd at Pride Park with a full complement of 3,000-plus travelling Blades.
United were true to their manager’s vow that they would attack the Rams early on, and John Fleck and stand-in skipper Clarke both enjoyed early sights at Scott Carson’s goal.
The former England goalkeeper, who gifted United’s Billy Sharp one of his two goals in the corresponding fixture after a howler of a kick, would have had nervous flashbacks when forced to backpeddle and deal with a difficult backpass and will have been a relieved man when Clayton Donaldson got a touch to Chris Basham’s cross but could only deflect it into the side-netting.
Czech international Vydra showed little of the finishing that has brought him 14 goals this season when he shot high, wide and not so handsomely over Simon Moore’s crossbar, but was soon well and truly in the game when presented with the chance to open the scoring from 12 yards.
Johnny Russell, who scored a spectacular own goal at Bramall Lane, was fouled by Mark Duffy just in front of the dugouts but recovered miraculously after appearing to be seriously injured and the United man was cautioned. Moments later, the Scot got past George Baldock by the Blades byline but appeared to nudge his marker from behind.
As the pair tumbled to the turf, Baldock appeared to handle the ball, referee Darren Bond pointed to the spot and Vydra did the rest, smashing high and down the middle to give Moore no chance.
“I was disappointed with the goal,” Wilder admitted.
“It came against the run of play, and gave them a real lift. George is one that’s stepped up a level [from League One side MK Dons] and he’ll learn. But generally, the players gave everything and deserved the reception they got at the end.”
It is perhaps a measure of the progress made by both John Lundstram, United’s biggest purchase of the summer, and Wilder’s men that almost a year ago, he was helping Oxford to a 1-0 victory at Gillingham while United won 3-1 at Bury’s Gigg Lane.
Lundstram, handed the unenviable task of replacing Paul Coutts in United’s midfield after the Scot suffered a season-ending broken leg, was again superb here and one move, which saw him receive the ball and turn four-cap England international Tom Huddlestone in one motion, highlighted his growing confidence.
Another of United’s star men in recent weeks, former Birmingham striker Clayton Donaldson, tested Carson’s handling after a sublime turn and a surging run but it was another former resident of the second city, ex-Aston Villa man Andreas Weimann, who should have put Derby 2-0 up as the first half drew to a close.
Derby broke quickly after clearing a United corner and as Huddlestone fed Vydra, Austrian Weimann timed his run perfectly to stay in his own half as the Czech striker played him through.
Weimann’s first touch took him a little wide of Moore’s goal but his left-footed shot looked to be heading for the back of it, before deviating slightly and clipping the post on its way wide.
Richard Stearman, another impressive United performer, did well to deny Russell before the half-time whistle and admitted he and his teammates were disappointed not to be at least level at the break.
But their reward did eventually come in the second period when, after Fleck had twice enjoyed sights of Carson’s goal, Clarke notched his 15th of the season and ended a mini-drought of four goalless games for the Championship’s top scorer.
Donaldson’s passable impression of a right-winger saw him fashion a yard of space and provide a peach of a cross for the unmarked 32-year-old, who steered his header back across Carson and into the bottom left corner of his goal.
David Nugent, Derby’s veteran striker, had the ball in United’s net but Richard Keogh was adjudged to have fouled Clarke in the build-up and although the hosts introduced Sheffield Wednesday loanee Sam Winnall and Chris Martin, Moore remained untroubled as the excellent Stearman marshalled the visitors’ backline superbly.
With the point, and Aston Villa’s remarkable 5-0 demolition of Bristol City, United drop to seventh in the Championship and their record without an away win on New Year’s Day, which stretches back to 1915, goes on.
But under Wilder, United are only looking forward and with a few more performances like this between now and May, the future could be very bright indeed; after all, football is about more than pounds and pence.
Derby: Carson, Baird, Keogh, Davies, Forsyth, Russell, Huddlestone, Weimann, Johnson (Winnall, 70), Nugent (Martin, 81), Vydra (Thorne, 71). Not used: Wisdom, Pearce, Bennett, Mitchell.
Blades: Moore, Baldock, Basham, Stearman, O’Connell, Stevens, Fleck, Lundstram (Lafferty, 92), Duffy (Carruthers, 77), Clarke, Donaldson. Not used: Blackman, Sharp, Wright, Carter-Vickers, Lavery.
Referee: Darren Bond (Lancashire)
Star man: John Lundstram