Returning Sheffield United star centre of attention after taking big step following 14 months of injury hell

Rhys Norrington-Davies made first start in 14 months in highlight of Sheffield United's 4-0 FA Cup win at Gillingham

While, with the greatest of respect to Gillingham, Sheffield United hope that Saturday's 4-0 FA Cup third-round win at Priestfield is simply a stepping stone to bigger and better things in the second half of their season, it is a game that will have meant the world to defender Rhys Norrington-Davies as he made another huge step in his recovery after 14 months on the sidelines.

The Welsh international started his first game since October 2022 against the League Two side, playing slightly out of position at left centre-half and playing almost the entire 90 minutes before being withdrawn late on. After a brief cameo a week earlier for the final few minutes at Manchester City, the start came a little sooner than many had expected but the 24-year-old came through it unscathed, then becoming the subject of attention from his teammates and manager in the away dressing room.

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"We were delighted for him in the changing room afterwards, we said a few words," said Wilder. "It wasn't really about the game. A big part of the chat afterwards was about a certain individual who had been out for 14 months and had question marks about him. I didn't have any doubts about playing him, although I had the sports scientists and conditioners swarming over me. But I did say to him that he didn't really have to do anything. He just had to head it and pass it, and he headed it and he passed it.

"Fourteen months away from the lights, coming in early and leaving late. Especially watching his teammates be successful, getting promotion and getting to a cup semi-final. He'd have desperately wanted to be a part of that but had to go through the process, and has done it through dedication. It shows what a good person and individual he is, as well as a good player."

There was almost double delight for United's returning players as Rhian Brewster came off the bench as he continues his own journey back to full fitness, and almost marked it with a goal. A good pass from Gus Hamer sent him free one-on-one but, perhaps lacking a bit of sharpness after less than 200 minutes of first-team football in 14 months, his shot was straight at Jake Turner and the Gillingham goalkeeper blocked with his body.

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"If there are any question marks about the attitude of professional footballers when they're injured, people just don't understand the game," Wilder added. "Because that is the loneliest place to be and the hardest place to be. I'm delighted for Rhian as well, we would have loved him to get a goal, and delighted for Rhys to play close to 90 minutes on his return to football. And I am sure all his teammates would echo those thoughts."

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