It has taken Billy Sharp less than a month to dispel fears the captaincy might weigh heavily on his shoulders next season.
The Sheffield United centre-forward, who was handed the role following Chris Wilder’s appointment in May, scored two goals and helped create another as the visitors recorded a convincing victory at Blundell Park.
Although his performance inside the opposition’s penalty area drew a handsome tribute from Alan Knill - “I didn’t realise quite how good Billy was until we came here” - it was Sharp’s work off the ball which, following Tuesday’s defeat by FC Halifax Town, impressed United’s assistant manager the most.
“Taking on the captaincy, Billy looks like he’s just stepped into it seamlessly,” Knill said. “He looks like he’s enjoying it, which is key. Sometimes players just want to look after themselves. But Billy has stepped up and led from the front.”
Sharp insisted he was inspired rather than intimidated by the prospect of becoming Wilder’s on-the-pitch lieutenent when United’s new manager announced his decision within 48 hours of taking charge in May.
Following a desperately disappointing and divisive campaign, which cost the club promotion and Nigel Adkins his job, the 48-year-old reckoned handing one of Bramall Lane’s best -loved sons the responsibility of leading United into battle would have a rejuvenating effect in both the dressing room and the stands.
On Saturday’s evidence, Wilder’s hunch was correct. Sharp, together with his teammates, chased, hustled and harried Paul Hurst’s talented but shot-shy side as United produced a display in stark contrast to the lacklustre shift which saw them beaten 2-0 at The Shay four days earlier.
Reaffirming Wilder’s pledge that his squad will “win together and lose together” when the League One season begins next month, Knill acknowledged coaching staff accepted their share of the blame for United’s hiccup in West Yorkshire. But he insisted the players deserved credit for the manner of their response.
“The attitude pleased us as much as anything,” Knill said. “On Tuesday, it was nothing to to with ability because, if it was, we’d have won. But if you want to win, then you also need the right attitude first.”
Although United remain a work in progress - talks with Bury aimed at signing Leon Clarke will resume this week - they already look a much more cohesive and confrontational unit than the one which limped to an 11th-placed finish last term.
James Wilson and Jack O’Connell, two mobile and athletic centre-halves, both appear astute signings. Chris Hussey, together with fellow full-back John Brayford, can defend but also enjoys surging forward when circumstances allow. John Fleck, like Mark Duffy, should become more influential as he gains match sharpness, while Jake Wright, the former Oxford United captain, is expected to appear in the squad which faces Hallam FC tomorrow.
“We were disappointed after Tuesday,” Knill conceded. “But the focus afterwards was: ‘Right, this (Grimsby) is a proper game, a league game, a cup game.’ The lads took that on board and did really well.”
With Che Adams named among United’s substitutes, Dominic Calvert-Lewin seized his chance in style by turning home in the 23rd minute after being released by Sharp’s pass.
Grimsby, playing their seventh pre-season fixture, included on-loan Barnsley striker Kayden Jackson and former United midfielder Ben Davies in their starting 11.
Despite threatening on several occasions, particularly during the first half, Grimsby were unable to punch a hole in United’s defence.
Two minutes after his intervention, Calvert-Lewin turned provider by robbing Josh Gowling of possession and setting in motion the chain of events which ended with Sharp converting his first of the afternoon.
Luke Summerfield pulled one back for Grimsby, but United broke the League Two side’s resolve when Sharp, wriggling into position, pounced just past the hour.
“Oh my God, any manager of coach in the League would want Billy,” Knill said. “I’ve been on the end of some of his goals before. Sometimes you think: ‘Billy could have done better there.’
“But, before you get to the end of the sentence, bang, the ball is in the net.”
Grimsby Town: McKeown, Davies, Andrew, McAllister (Bogle 46), Pearson (Boyce 70), Gowling, Chambers (M Wright 85), Jackson, Vose (Disley 70), Berrett, Summerfield. Not used: Venney, Clifton, Jones.
Sheffield United: Long, Brayford (Freeman 87), Wilson, O’Connell, Hussey (K Wallace 87), Basham (Whiteman 83), Fleck (Brooks 78), Duffy (Scougall 67), Done (Coutts 67), Calvert-Lewin (McNulty 46), Sharp (Adams 61). Not used: Ramsdale, Semple, J Wright.
Referee: David Webb.
Attendance: 3,760 (1,808).