So it turns out the team from the Pub League can play after all.
Sheffield United have spent the last five years being derided, disrespected or at best totally disregarded by Sheffield Wednesday’s more strident fans as they fought to regain their Championship status. But, as events at Hillsborough yesterday proved, Chris Wilder’s side not only have the beating of the Dog and Duck, they possess the grit, and the guile, to pick apart a squad stuffed full of multi-million-pound footballers too.
The sniping is pertinent because, as Wilder indicated following this 4-2 victory, it acted as a motivational tool. Despite stressing Carlos Carvahal had not been complicit - “He’s a class act, a really good bloke” - one throwaway line during his post-match media conference confirmed United’s manager had been affronted by the jibes.
“Why should they be bothered about us?” he asked. “They’ve got their own agendas. We’ve been away for a very long time, haven’t we.”
It was the tone of his voice, as much as the words themselves, which spoke volumes.
United won the 128th instalment of this great footballing rivalry because they played with more courage, precision and heart. Wednesday were determined, dragging themselves back from 2-0 down after John Fleck and Leon Clarke had put the visitors in the driving seat, but lacked the same focus and drive.
Earlier in the week, Wilder had described the derby as “everything” before adding: “It’s bigger and better, in my eyes, than any other game there is.” It was a message which clearly resonated with his charges and suggests, although Carvahal later insisted otherwise, that the match was won before a ball had even been kicked.
United played the game and the occasion. Wednesday, until Gary Hooper pounced on the stroke of half-time, seemed either blissfully unaware or totally overwhelmed by it.
“Carlos said he slept all right (beforehand),” Wilder, a lifelong United supporter, continued. “I never slept a wink for seven days. For people to say this is about league tables and points, that pays lip service to this fixture. This is a proper football city. I don’t care what anyone else says, this match is up there with the best.”
United took the lead in the third minute when Fleck, who signed a new long-term contract on Friday, applied the finishing touches to a clever free-kick routine. But the goal was as much about the brilliance of David Brooks as it was the ingenuity which, following Paul Coutts’ dummy run, saw the ball nonchalantly rolled into the Scot’s path. The driving run which put Wednesday on the back foot and led to the set-piece being awarded set the tone for the entire afternoon.
Leon Clarke, the former Wednesday centre-forward, doubled United’s lead after beating the offside trap before Hooper reduced the deficit during the closing seconds of opening period.
When Lucas João levelled, Carvahal admitted he expected Wednesday to go on and win. But Mark Duffy had other ideas and, less than five minutes after entering the fray, restored United’s advantage with a superb solo effort. Joost van Aken, who was turned inside and out by the United substitute before he threaded the ball between Keiren Westwood and the near post, did well to carry on after being left with an acute case of twisted blood.
“We get tagged, with an English manager and English players, as being a team that just boots it and runs around a lot, that we don’t have any tactical nous,” Wilder said. “I thought we produced a top-quality performance against a really good side. We’ve gone out there and gone toe to toe with a team that’s bang in form and going well.”
Wednesday, previously unbeaten since the opening day of the season, conceded again when Clarke claimed his second of a pulsating contest. United, last term’s League One champions, returned home fourth in the table after proving they are worthy of respect.
“We know what we’re about,” Wilder said. “This is it.”