At the beginning of the season, Sheffield United’s prospects of mounting a challenge for promotion appeared to be more remote than the metropolis the poet called home. But finally, after several false starts and lacklustre performances, they now resemble the team Slavisa Jokanovic always thought they could be. ‘Resemble’ being the operative word, the Serb stressed, having seen Billy Sharp mark his 300th appearance for the club with the 253rd goal of his career.
“I have to be satisfied, but we must still have more of a killer instinct,” he said, with United’s captain also missing a penalty before John Egan claimed a brace. “I don’t want us to give any sort of encouragemen to our opponents, which we did.”
Although there are still issues for Jokanovic to address before United can be considered genuine contenders - not least the vulnerability from set-pieces Di’Shon Bernard nearly exploited while the fixture was still finely balanced - he left East Yorkshire knowing they are growing in stature and confidence.
Morgan Gibbs-White, whose assist for Sharp’s opener was his second since arriving on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers, has brought a vibrancy and dynamism to United’s attacking play which was sorely absent during the opening weeks of the campaign. George Baldock’s influence is growing on a match by match basis while even Rhian Brewster, handed a rare start when Sander Berge injured a hamstring during the warm-up, had the confidence to take a series of shots from long-range.
Deploying him just behind the frontline, Jokanivic might have accidentally discovered how to get the best from United’s record signing, who has netted just once after leaving Liverpool 11 months ago.
“We must continue to grow up though,” Jokanovic continued, despite seeing United stretch their unbeaten run to four, “If we want to challenge for the targets we have set ourselves.”
Despite their well-documented problems in their final third, City pressed with real purpose at the beginning of a contest manager Grant McCann later acknowledged United largely dominated. But it was the visitors who enjoyed a slender advantage at the break as Sharp scored for the fourth time this season before spurning the opportunity to make it five from the spot; Matt Ingram saving his attempt after the 35-year-old had been felled by Jacob Greaves.
If McCann thought his players would take heart from Sharp’s slip, he was sorely mistaken. After watching his colleague head home Gibbs-White’s centre from the middle of the six yard box, Egan scrambled the ball in when Conor Hourihane, one of four changes to United’s starting eleven, flighted a corner towards the far post. The United supporters massed behind Ingram’s net had barely finished celebrating when the pair reprised the same trick again after Gibbs-White’s shot had been turned behind. Sensing the points were safe, Jokanovic responded by awarding Adlene Guedioura his debut alongside John Fleck in midfield. A few metres to the Serb’s right, McCann simply looked despondent. And little wonder. City were beaten and their marking had been woeful although Keane Lewis-Potter finally ended their goal drought during the closing stages. It was their first in 11 hours of Championship football.