It wasn’t the vote of confidence from manager Chris Wilder or even the phenomenal record against his former club.
Instead, an early morning message from father Steve convinced Billy Sharp this was going to be a big afternoon for both him and Sheffield United long before a ball had even been kicked in anger.
“My dad texted me to say that I’d scored five in five against Leeds and that he believed I’d score again,” Sharp, whose two goals injected fresh impetus into United’s promotion challenge, said. “I felt the same. He’s always doing stuff like that, reminding me about little bits and pieces, so it felt good when his prediction came true.”
Big games require big players and, having claimed the 200th and 201st league strikes of his career, there is no one bigger at Bramall Lane than Billy Sharp. Given the importance of the fixture - the visitors, making their first outing under new manager Paul Heckingbottom, also entered the match harbouring aspirations of reaching the top six - it was no surprise when Wilder recalled his captain to the starting eleven after previously relegating him to the bench.
It proved an inspired decision with Mark Duffy, who also had a point to prove after being handed a watching brief in recent weeks, creating the early chance which Sharp converted in spectacular fashion less than two minutes after kick-off. His second-half penalty, and seventh effort in six starts against the visitors from Elland Road, ensured Heckingbottom’s reign began with a defeat despite Pierre-Michel Lasogga’s equaliser.
“This was a key game because they would have gone above us with a win,” Sharp said. “Now, we are chasing. The pressure is on the other teams, the ones above us. We have to concentrate on ourselves and keep winning games. We’re chasing and trying to hunt them down.”
This victory, only United’s second in the Championship since the turn of the year, saw them remain eighth in the table but move to within touching distance of the play-off positions following Bristol City’s implosion against Sunderland. Speaking earlier in the week, Wilder had also identified the fixture as the first in a series of matches set to define the remainder of their campaign.
So it was telling that, following last weekend’s defeat by leaders Wolves, he summoned Sharp to a meeting before leaving Molinuex and told him to prepare for a return to the spotlight after a month in the shadows. The centre-forward responded with a tour-de-force performance bookended by two very different but absolutely critical goals. The second, a well-taken penalty following Eunan O’Kane’s challenge on John Fleck, rendered Lasogga’s effort an irrelevance.
The first, an extravagant volley after Mark Duffy’s centre was only half cleared, saw him achieve a personal landmark. Although Wilder was unaware of its significance, Sharp, who spent a year in West Yorkshire before embarking upon his third spell with United, had already been furnished with the facts.
“My dad has kept me going the last few weeks when I’ve not been playing,” he said. “It was nice to get a text off him, it gives me confidence. If I have a good record, he texts me, He know all about the stats; goals and wins, that sort of thing.
“I have had spells like this before, when I’ve not in the team. You just have to get on with it, especially now I’m captain, because I have to keep the boys going. The goals were for them, they are the ones who have been grafting but not getting the results.”
It is testament to Sharp’s character that, rather than discuss his own achievement, he preferred to talk about others afterwards. Duffy, arguably the most creative member of United’s squad, has also spent periods on the sidelines following the arrival of Ricky Holmes and Ryan Leonard at Bramall Lane.
Like Sharp, he celebrated his recall by tying Leeds in knots before the interval with his movement, awareness and poise. Jamal Blackman, replacing the suspended Simon Moore, was powerless to keep out Lasogga’s perfectly placed header but had earlier produced a fine block to deny Pontus Jansson as Leeds improved.
“We all know what Mark can do,” Sharp said. “I thought he had a great game as well. He was excellent.”