The division might be different but there was still an air of inevitability about the outcome of this game.
Unbeaten since January or, by another measure, yet to taste defeat in nearly 29 hours of competitive action, Sheffield United are the team that have apparently forgotten how to lose.
Predictably, given that he was on target 30 times during last season’s League One title-winning campaign, Billy Sharp was responsible for scoring the goal which condemned Brentford to defeat and ensured United’s return to the Championship started on a triumphant note.
It was a hard-fought contest and, at times, proved every bit as awkward as manager Chris Wilder had predicted. But, after 95 minutes of compelling and sometimes breathless action, United proved their relentless brand of football can deliver results on a higher stage.
“We went through pre-season unbeaten, winning all our fixtures, as well,” Sharp said. “The main thing is fitness but we were still trying to build a successful run. The momentum continues and takes us forward. It gives us a good platform to build on.”
The partnership between Sharp and Leon Clarke spawned a combined total of seven goals in only three outings towards the end of last term. Once again, despite the pre-match chatter about it being ill-equipped to trouble more parsimonious defences, their double act produced the defining moment of Saturday’s contest. Clarke, who spent the afternoon seemingly on a one-man mission to harass every opposition player, appeared to have fluffed his lines having tried and failed to execute a volley at Daniel Bentley’s far post.
But he recovered his poise and scooped a perfectly-angled centre across Brentford’s box which Sharp duly headed home.
Dean Smith’s men also carved chances. Indeed, after Enda Stevens and John Fleck had both struck the woodwork, Lasse Vibe wasted a glorious opportunity to equalise. But with Jamal Blackman making an encouraging debut, United kept them at bay.
A PROPER TEAM
Although Sharp once again stole the headlines, he was not United’s only impressive performer. Richard Stearman and Stevens, who, like Blackman, were making their full debuts for the club, were all effective while John Lundstram was comfortable after making his first appearance since arriving from Oxford off the bench.
But the core of last season’s squad, which reached 100 points and finished 14 clear of their nearest rivals, made telling contributions. Fleck and Paul Coutts passed with precision, Samir Carruthers interspersed an energetic display with clever tricks. Chris Basham, meanwhile, was always at the heart of the action, demonstrating, like Stearman, an acute positional sense.
Sharp provided an insight into United’s psyche when, unlike Sunderland the night before, he revealed they would have been “disappointed” with a point.
“You try and win your home games,” he said. “We know what out strengths are and, if we play to them, we can win games. We dominated most teams last season but we’re not stupid, this league is a lot better. We’ve got to concentrate when we’re not on the ball.”
JOLLY GOOD JAMAL
With Wilder later describing the visitors as “one of the division’s best technical teams,” United prevented them from finding their rhythm until the closing stages of the fixture.
Blackman, who later did enough to stop Vibe from equalising after Jota had struck the crossbar, made a good block to deny the Dane but United took charge when Stevens hit the woodwork. Jack O’Connell nearly connected with a Coutts corner before the Scot shot wide. Fleck was later denied by the upright. When Sharp bundled home the rebound, he was adjudged offside. Clarke also saw an effort disallowed.
Brentford thought they had levelled when Neal Maupay found himself in space but Blackman, on loan from Chelsea, intervened.
“I’m pleased for Jamal,” Sharp said. “He’s been a quiet lad up to now but no-one is going to tell him to be louder. He’s about three feet taller than me! He commands his box well. Going into the game, he’s not stupid, everybody will have been thinking: ‘Let’s see what you can do.’ He did well.”