Billy Sharp leaned forward and, after taking a moment to consider his response, admitted that no, first-team opportunities have not been as forthcoming as he might have liked or expected over the past month or so.
But, revealing the camaraderie which exists among Sheffield United’s senior squad, its captain seemed intent on discussing Ched Evans’ return to action following injury rather than his own cathartic moment.
Despite Sharp’s best efforts to convince otherwise, Evans’ second-half cameo after spending four months recovering from ankle surgery was a sub-plot of the game, although the sight of a player who scored 48 goals in less than 90 starts during his first spell at Bramall Lane back doing what he does best also piqued boss Chris Wilder’s interest,
Sharp’s finish after being tripped by Tom Clarke proved to be the defining moment of a tie high on industry but low on invention. The 32-year-old, making only his second start of 2018, hopes it will lead to further opportunities when United face Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers later this week.
“It was nice to play and to get a goal was a bonus,” he said. “The main thing was to get through to the next round. At half-time, we got told to lift it a little bit because, whoever did that, would win. We did just enough, I believe, to go through.”
A GENTLE PROD
Sharp’s absence from Wilder’s first-choice 11 has been a major talking point of late, with the manager again forced to address the issue on the eve of Preston’s visit.
Having hit the target 30 times last season as United cruised to the League One title, the centre-forward was the first name on the team sheet at the beginning of the campaign but, with Leon Clarke, Clayton Donaldson and on-loan James Wilson all impressing, no longer enjoys untouchable status.
Nevertheless, after finding the back of the net for the first time since November, Sharp is phlegmatic about his situation.
“I’ve not played as much football as I’d have wanted to but that lads have been doing well,” he said. “It was good to get back out there.
“But I’ve always tried to contribute, off the pitch, all my career. Possibly even more so now I’m captain.
“I’ve been trying to train well every day to make sure he (Wilder) knows I’m there. Clarkey has been on fire, Willo scored on his debut at Norwich City and Clayton did when he came on last weekend. So I needed to score as well.
“But it’s great that all the strikers are scoring because that creates the right sort of problem. It’s good for the club and that comes first.”
ANOTHER QUALITY OPTION
Evans’ re-emergence further complicates the issue, although, as Wilder conceded afterwards, that is exactly what the boss hoped his January recruitment drive would do. Hampered by fitness issues after returning to the club last summer, Evans’ confirmed the wisdom of United’s decision to withdraw him from the firing line by producing a combative performance against their Championship rivals.
“The fans really like him because of what he did before,” Sharp, referring to Evans’ exploits six years ago, said “ He had a few injuries. But he’s right now and everyone knows what a good player he can be. It was for the best that he went and got sorted so he doesn’t have any niggles. He’ll have a big part to play.”
Ben Heneghan, making his debut after arriving from Motherwell in August, was also impressive at the heart of a rearguard expertly marshalled by Jake Wright and Richard Stearman. The defender, who had been set to depart on loan before the transfer deadline, went about his business with maturity and, making several important interceptions, very little fuss to prompt a review of the development programme United’s coaching staff had devised.
“Ben did well, and will be a part of it for the rest of the season now,” Sharp continued. “The gaffer has made signings in the summer and now four more of late.”
After a moribund opening period, it seemed as if United would be forced to shoe-horn another fixture into their busy schedule. However, as Mark Duffy’s influence grew, Wilder’s men avoided the need for a replay when Sharp converted from the spot after Donaldson and Daniel Lafferty, whose volley was well saved by Declan Rudd, had gone close.
“I thought we deserved to go through,” Sharp said. “It was close but we edged it.”