Sheffield United: Billy Sharp's penalty and a Slavisa Jokanovic substitution help The Blades down Derby County
The banner which used to adorn one wall of The Kop might be long gone but, as Derby County were reminded during the dying embers of this contest, Billy Sharp still scores goals.
A contest which had seen Sheffield United struggle to exploit the numerical advantage they were handed following Kelle Roos’ red card appeared destined to end in stalemate until the 35-year-old netted for the 253rd time in his career - firing home from the penalty spot after Curtis Davies’ rush of blood to the head undid all of the visitors’ good work.
The result was a triumph of perseverance rather than panache as United, now unbeaten in their last five Championship outings, often found themselves labouring against opponents who saw a Tom Lawrence effort rebound back off a post deep into added time. But was a victory for Jokanovic’s tactical acumen too, with Conor Hourinhae, introduced during the closing stages because of his accurate delivery, producing the centre which Davies - bizarrely for someone so experienced - fisted clear.
County might no longer be one of the best teams in the division. But, as they demonstrated at Bramall Lane, they are far better than their position at the bottom of the table suggests. Propping up the division because of financial reasons, not a lack of footballing ability, Wayne Rooney’s men might be in administration and facing another points deduction. On the pitch, though, they appear in pretty decent shape. Even if Roos’ decision making left plenty to be desired when, with more than half an hour of the contest remaining, he chose to bring down Billy Sharp as the United captain charged towards the box. The choice Davies made, meeting Hourihane’s cross with his hand rather than head, was even more perplexing.
Jokanovic spent most of the opening period brooding, glowering and pacing around his technical area. Which, if any of his players had glanced towards the dug-outs, would have told them everything they needed to know about what he thought of their performance.
Unusually flat and uninventive - at least by the standards they have set since the international break - it wasn’t until Roos’ exit that United truly discovered their rhythm. And by then, only the width of the crossbar had prevented Phil Jagielka giving County the lead. Released at the end of his contract before Jokanovic’s appointment in July, the supporters who cheered the former United defender’s name before kick-off would like to think he placed the header perfectly. The look on Jagielka’s face, returning to Bramall Lane after his second spell with the club, suggested otherwise.
United had gone close when Sharp, delightfully plucking George Baldock’s floated pass out of the air, blazed over. But County created the better openings until Roos’ miscalculation changed the dynamic of the game. Iliman Ndiaye and Morgan Gibbs-White both had efforts deflected wide after the Dutchman had deliberately impeded Sharp as they contested Oliver Norwood’s punt upfield. Then, Ndiaye made a dreadful hash of a header after being picked-out by Gibbs-White.
Sharp, finding the back of the net for the fourth time this term, finally broke County’s resistance toward the end of normal time before Lawrence’s shot ricocheted off John Egan and onto a post.