A Billy Sharp hat-trick helped fire Sheffield United to the top of the table with a 4-2 win over Wigan Athletic.
Kai Naismith cancelled out a Chey Dunkley own goal before Sharp netted on the stroke of half-time and then twice more in the second-half, including a wonderful dinked effort, to put the Latics out of sight at Bramall Lane.
The win puts the Blades temporarily top of the Championship on 29 points before Leeds United could claim the spot if they beat Nottingham Forest this evening due to their superior goal difference.
The defeat was Wigan’s sixth straight defeat away from home, although they made life difficult for the Blades in the final stages as Joe Garner pulled one back for the visitors with 20-minutes to go.
United were forced into two changes as John Egan and Mark Duffy, who appeared to take a knock in the 1-1 draw with Stoke in midweek, sat out, with Richard Stearman and Sharp taking their place in an attacking line-up.
That meant Leon Clarke, who got off the mark with his first goal of the season on Tuesday, retained his starting place alongside the skipper as David McGoldrick sat in just behind.
With Wigan facing promotion-chasers Leeds and Middlesbrough soon, the next few weeks present a challenging test for this newly-promoted side who are without a number of senior figures.
Nick Powell, one of their pre-match doubts, was passed fit enough to start though and tested Dean Henderson early on with a powerful header that the England U21 keeper did well to grasp.
Gary Roberts, one of four changes from the Latics’ 2-1 defeat at Millwall in midweek, watched as Henderson tipped his fierce free-kick from the edge-of-the-box over the bar.
Centre-back Dunkley then glanced a header wide of the upright from the following corner as United, for all their quick passing play, could’ve quite easily found themselves chasing the game.
But if there’s an example of how quickly football can change then it came minutes later.
Chris Basham snuck his way to the by-line following Kieron Freeman’s throw-in and his pull-back caused havoc in the Wigan defence with Dunkley, who came inches from putting his side in front, got his feet in a tangle and poked it into his own net from two-yards.
Latics boss, Paul Cook, said before the match he believes Sheffield United are the best side in the table. They certainly had a zip about their passing in the first-half and Freeman looked dangerous on the wing. What was missing, though, was that profligacy in front of goal, that cutting edge.
That costs big bucks, admittedly, and Wilder has three strikers in Clarke, Sharp and McGoldrick who have more than an eye for goal. The Blades’ system certainly has the attackers’ best interests at heart but, such was the case in the 1-1 draw with Stoke in midweek, if you don’t take your chances the league has a habit of punishing you.
It proved to be the case again.
United lost the ball in the final third and never really recovered as Naismith, who had only been on the pitch for three minutes after replacing the injured Gary Roberts, netted his first goal for the Latics after Nathan Byrne’s cross picked him out at the back post.
One thing that is for certain about United, however, is their never-say-die attitude. It was personified by skipper Sharp who fired home at the back post after Richard Stearman nodded on an Oli Norwood set-piece. The timing, a minute before the interval, was even sweeter for Wilder’s men.
McGoldrick had a chance to put the Blades out of sight in added time when Sharp threaded him through one-on-one, but Antonee Robinson recovered to mop up and block the delayed effort.
United were quick out of the blocks and Clarke, who looks like the Clarke of old after breaking his drought in the middle of the week, was denied his second in as many games when Christian Walton tipped his effort wide at the near post.
Clarke then turned provider as he skimmed a cross along the face of goal that was just begging for a touch, and Sharp accepted the invite by side-footing home his second of the match and his tenth of the season. That was the kind of composure United were lacking in the first-half.
Sharp then completed his hat-trick just after the hour with a delightful dink over Walton and into the top corner to condemn Wigan to their sixth straight away defeat. A beautifully weighted outside-of-the-foot pass from Norwood found the marauding Stevens who found Sharp before the front man lifted his effort over the flailing Walton.
Substitute Joe Garner pulled one back for the Latics with just over 20-minutes remaining, but it was too little too late as the Blades recorded a deserved three points with Wigan chasing shadows for most of the second-half.
O’Connell could’ve added gloss to the win when his thunderous header cracked the bar, but the job was already done and dusted for Wilder’s men.
The only real blot on the copy-book for United was that Basham will miss the Blades’ trip to Nottingham Forest on Saturday after picking up his fifth yellow card of the season.
But for now, top spot is all United’s.
Sheffield United: Henderson; Basham, Stearman, O’Connell; Freeman, Fleck, Norwood, Stevens; McGoldrick (Coutts, 61’); Sharp (C) (Washington, 88′), Clarke. Subs not used: Baldock, Woodburn, Johnson, Cranie, Moore.
Wigan Athletic: Walton; James, Byrne, Dunkley, Burn; Connolly (Garner, 59’), Roberts (Naismith, 36’), Morsy (C), Robinson; Windass, Powell (McManaman, 67’). Subs not used: Vaughan, Da Silva Lopes, Kipre, Jones.
Referee: Tony Harrington
Bookings: Sheffield United: McGoldrick, Fleck, Basham
Wigan Athletic: Connolly, Garner
Scorers: Sheffield United: Dunkley (O.G, 24’), Sharp (45’, 54’, 63’)
Wigan Athletic: Naismith (39’), Garner (69’)
HT score: 2-1
FT score: 4-2
Man of the Match: Billy Sharp (Sheffield United)