Sheffield United: Why lethal Leon Clarke typifies the top-six spirit ... Blades 1 Birmingham City 1

Leon Clarke scores. Pictures: Simon Bellis/Sport Image
Leon Clarke scores. Pictures: Simon Bellis/Sport Image
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A fervent Liverpool supporter, despite serving his apprenticeship with their neighbours Everton, John Lundstram will be aware of Bob Paisley’s theory that criticism, whether constructive or caustic, should be viewed as a motivational tool.

Certainly, if the midfielder is to be believed, claims Sheffield United’s squad are too expansive, too inexperienced to mount another challenge for promotion after conquering League One last term, have only strengthened their resolve to achieve something special in the Championship.

“The majority of us have been in situations where we’ve had to prove people wrong,” Lundstram, analysing Saturday’s draw with Birmingham City, said. “That’s a great quality to have. If you’re resting on your laurels and you’ve got nothing to prove, your quality sometimes doesn’t come through. There’s a lot of fight in us.”

Given the opposition’s miserable away record, this result does little to support Lundstram’s premise that attack is the route to success. But on closer inspection, United’s performance against a team which have taken just two points on the road all season confirmed, despite being written off by many, they possess both the character and calibre to secure a top-six place.

Third in the table and playing an exciting, dynamic brand of football, Chris Wilder’s side threatened to overwhelm the visitors at times. The fact the scoreline failed to reflect their dominance - Leon Clarke’s ninth goal in four appearances cancelling out Jeremie Boga’s spectacular finish - owed as much to City’s organisation and stoicism as it did any shortcomings on United’s part.

“I think a lot of teams come up and are fearful of the big money in the Championship,” Lundstram, a summer signing from Oxford, said. “You’ve got people on certain amounts of money in this division, big teams who have been in the Premier League for years. But it doesn’t win you anything. It’s 11 versus 11 on the pitch that wins you the game. We run, we stick together, which is key, and we’ve got the quality on top of that.”

John Lundstram shoots

John Lundstram shoots

CLARKE IS CLASS

No-one, not even the perceptive Mark Duffy or adroit John Fleck, is showing more class right now than Clarke, whose second-half goal ensured United’s dominance did not go entirely unrewarded.

City, having taken the lead when Boga pounced before the interval, were creaking towards only their fifth win of the campaign when the centre-forward pounced for the 13th time since August.

Combining with substitute David Brooks, he wrong-footed goalkeeper David Stockdale from close range having earlier sliced wide when Duffy and Fleck prised apart the massed ranks of City’s defence.

David Brooks

David Brooks

Steve Cotterill, Wilder’s opposite number, later suggested the visitors could count themselves unfortunate to have been pegged back following on-loan Chelsea youngster Boga’s strike.

Although the resolve City demonstrated suggests the former Nottingham Forest chief’s methods are beginning to take effect, in truth it would have been a robbery of Brink’s-Mat proportions had they returned to St Andrews victorious.

“It’s obviously a massive help to have someone like him in the team,” Lundstram, reflecting upon Clarke’s contribution, said. “Huge credit to Leon, he puts the work in on the training field and he’s a top, top lad off the pitch. I’m really happy to see him performing how he is.”

Clarke, despite his sullen demeanour and eccentricities, has emerged as a key member of United’s dressing room.

“We all work incredibly hard and none more so than Leon,” Lundstram added. “He’s putting in the miles, running his socks off right until the last minute. But it’s not just the work, his technique is superb.

“He’s charismatic, he’s funny and he’s a massive figure behind the scenes. Everybody says how strong our team spirit is and he’s at the heart of that.”

STORY OF THE GAME

Boga’s superb effort underlined the quality, despite their perilous predicament, 21st-placed City, have. But even though his pace caused problems, the Ivorian’s 25-yard strike came against the run of play, with Clarke going close and Lundstram, who later sliced wide from Fleck’s pass, forcing Stockdale to save.

“The performance was there,” Lundstram said. “We just couldn’t quite get the end product we’d have liked.”

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