Another game, another win and, for the team fresh out of what their rivals disparagingly called ‘The Pub League’, another huge plaudit from an opposition manager.
Reading’s Jaap Stam, with four titles and 67 international caps on his professional CV, knows quality when he sees it. So when the former Manchester United, Lazio and Ajax centre-half insisted Sheffield United are equipped to secure a top-six finish, folk should probably revise their opinions of Chris Wilder’s side.
Not that Mark Duffy, whose magnificent performance helped lay the foundations for this result, is bothered if people continue to attribute their meteoric rise up the Championship table to momentum following last season’s promotion.
“People turn their noses up at League One,” he said. “They say it’s ‘this’ and ‘that’ but we know how good we are. We’ve just carried on playing the same way because it’s our way. What we’ve done since might have surprised a few but definitely not me.”
First-half goals from Paul Coutts and Billy Sharp, scoring for the 23rd time in 36 outings, ensured United remained third, level on points with second-placed Cardiff City and within striking distance of leaders Wolves.
But Duffy, twisting, turning and tormenting defenders throughout, was the architect of a victory even Stam admitted was deserved.
The former Birmingham City and Burton Albion midfielder’s delivery from set-piece situations thrust Reading straight on to the back foot and ensured they remained there for the majority of the afternoon.
Roy Beerens’ late effort meant the finale was more anxious than it should have been but United, as is usually the case, got the job done.
“People keep telling us we can’t keep playing this way,, that you have to do things differently when you come up a division,” Duffysaid. “But I don’t think that’s right. Hopefully people continue to keep under-estimating us because, if they do, it provides another slight advantage.”
Stam, describing Wilder’s squad as “very good, a team that works for each other and well-organised”, was certainly not dismissive of United’s achievements either before or afterwards. That makes the manner of their progress even more impressive.
Reading, who came within a penalty kick of reaching the Premier League last season, arrived with a game-plan and buoyed by last weekend’s triumph over Leeds. The fact they were unable to carry out Stam’s instructions owed more to United’s character and calibre than it did to any failings on the visitors’ part.
“When you’ve got the quality of Coutts, John Fleck, Jack O’Connell and plenty more besides, if you combine that with people giving everything then it can be a pretty powerful thing,” Duffy continued. “We didn’t let them breathe, we smothered them and were setting traps when they were trying to work the ball out, doing what they clearly wanted to do.”
United’s commitment to attacking football was highlighted by the fact that, until Coutts produced a superb finish from just outside the box, O’Connell had been their biggest attacking threat.
The centre-half headed a Duffy set-piece wide during the opening exchanges before drawing a save from Vito Mannone from a Coutts corner. O’Connell went close again after the Scot had broken the deadlock and, even though Sharp quickly doubled the Blades’ lead after being picked-out by Duffy at the far post, continued to surge forward on the overlap.
United play with intelligence and precision but also, perhaps unsurprisingly given the make-up of their squad, the passion of a fan.
“The gaffer is a Sheffield United lad,” Duffy said. It means a lot to him and also to Billy, who is a supporter, too. They leave everybody in no doubt what it means to represent this football club. The fans are right behind us because they can see everyone trying their hardest and giving 100 per cent. If you put that together with the quality we’ve got, then it’s happy times.”
“I’ve been at places before where the dressing room wasn’t great, where there were little splits and divides,” he added. “Here, everybody has got everybody else’s backs. If we haven’t, then they won’t stand for it. Everyone is together, everyone has bought into the club and everyone loves it here. We just enjoy coming into work.”