Sharp by name. Sharp by nature. Three shots. Two goals. The first was so memorable that the second became a formality. A bicycle kick followed by a penalty. In the end it was good enough to down Leeds United, even after Pierre-Michel Lasogga’s stunning header had drawn them level.
Emotions are high in derbies such as these. Both Sheffield United and their opponents knew their form was inconsistent at best, and downright dreadful at worst. So nerves would’ve been high. Questions asked about how quickly either would settle into the match. The wait wasn’t a long one.
Both Chris Wilder and new boss Paul Heckingbottom decided to ring the changes after recent heavy defeats to Wolverhampton Wanderers and Cardiff City. With Simon Moore serving the first match of his ban today, Jamal Blackman took his place back in goal, alongside Chris Basham and Mark Duffy.
With both teams making three changes, geography wasn’t the only factor separating these fierce rivals. The introduction of captain Eunan O’Kane, Stuart Dallas and Kalvin Phillips was to gave the impression that Heckingbottom was a new man with fresh ideas, where invention and unpredictability would be the key to success.
In just over a minute that theory collapsed. Duffy’s return to the squad was not a surprise, and it was his tenacious attitude, combined with a lightning burst of acceleration, which penned the Leeds back-line into their box.
The resulting cross from the right was a masterstroke and allowed Billy Sharp to take aim. Lining up the crowd sensed Sharp’s plan. In seconds the rapturous home crowd were on their feet as the pace of the striker’s bicycle kick left Felix Wieldwald no chance. Sharp’s tenth goal of the season was probably his best.
There wasn’t much let up. Duffy, like a yapping terrier, kept on pressing, forcing a mistake from Laurens De Bock, but eventually sliced his attempt which sailed over.
Leeds’ frustration early on was clear to see. Adam Forshaw’s late challenge on Jack O’Connell resulted in a yellow card for Forshaw, while an Ezgjan Alioski attempt from long range was a sign that the away side’s patience to find the goal was already dwindling.
Bookings for Sharp and Kemar Roofe followed. With each set of supporters egging referee Andrew Madley to take out a card there was the sense that neither side would finish with 11 men.
United had not lost at home to The Peacocks at Bramall Lane since 1992 and by half an hour it looked like that trend would continue. As United’s wing-backs, Richard Stearman and End Stevens pushed up, Leeds became stretched with both Leon Clarke and Duffy again coming inches away to doubling the home side’s lead.
Much as there is a rivalry between these two teams the level of respect is still great, and after a six minute stoppage in play after an injury to Roofe, both sets of fans proved that by falling silent due to the concern over his condition. Typically, the play-maker tried to play on but after just a few minutes it was evident to see that continuing with concussion was not a good idea at all. Pablo Hernandez would replace him.
Leeds had failed to win any of their opening six matches in all competitions in 2018, their longest winless run at the start of a calendar year since 2004,and although by this stage they had a foothold in the match there was never the sense that they could dominate the midfield.
Ever since Wilder had changed United’s formation to 3-5-2 it had allowed the likes of John Fleck to express himself more in the centre of the park, and that was the case again. Even without Paul Coutts, who is out for the season with a leg break, Leeds could not close down that space quickly enough to make an impact.
Where they could find the initiative was on set pieces. The recent introduction of a set-piece coach at the club was on the orders of Heckingbottom, in the hope that it would add a different dimension to their game.
And just before half-time we nearly got an insight into why that decision was almost a masterstroke. Hernandez’s whipped delivery was on point and if it wasn’t for the acrobatic reaction of Blackman then Pontus Jansson was certain to equalise with a bullet header. The fact Blades supporters celebrated it like a goal painted a picture of the nature of the stop.
Just minutes into the second half the roles were reversed. While United had started the match in emphatic style it was now Leeds’ turn. It’s rare to see at the top of professional football many players who can consistently cause carnage from crosses, but unfortunately for United, Hernandez was one of them.
It was his cross which found the head of Pierre-Michel Lasogga. The ball could not have been placed in the net any better, out of the reach of the despairing Blackman. Delirium suddenly consumed the away end. An away fan jumped onto the pitch, ran over to the home end, and dived for all to see. It was that kind of match.
The saying goals change games could not be more fitting to his affair. Suddenly the energy that had deserted Leeds in large periods in the first half returned. Man for man pressing became tighter. Passing was less sporadic. They had the momentum and everyone knew it.
Yet The Blades were unbeaten in their last 17 Yorkshire derbies and were in no mood to end that run. With Duffy as the protagonist United dug deep, and two long range shots from the attacking midfielder were somewhat of a reminder to Leeds of the dangers of complacency.
Intelligence and unpredictably are key in football and even though the tone of the tie had tilted, United had, if you could call it, a secret weapon up their sleeve. It was introduced at a free-kick on the edge of the box, a plan which fooled the Leeds back-line, resulting in a penalty as O’Kane fouled Fleck.
There was only one man who would take it and he didn’t miss. The wave of relief was palpable as Sharp’s seventh goal in six games against Leeds seemed to have proved the difference.
Heckingbottom responded instantly. On came Hadi Sacko and Caleb Ekuban, looking to create an instant impact. The effect was positive and the game’s tempo altered once again. Hernandez again became the biggest threat from the right, looking for Lasogga at every opportunity.
It wasn’t enough. With a brace Sharp brought up 200 league goals, becoming only one of three men since the turn of the century to reach that mark. The others? Rickie Lambert and Wayne Rooney. It’s not bad company.
POST MATCH STATS
Sheffield United: Jamal Blackman, George Baldock, Enda Stevens, John Fleck, Jack O’Connell, Chris Basham, Leon Clarke, Billy Sharp, Richard Stearman, Lee Evans, Mark Duffy.
Leeds United: Felix Wiedwald, Adam Forsahw, Matthew Pennington, Kemar Roofe, Pierre-Michel Lasogga, Ezgjan Alioski, Laurens De Bock, Eunan O’Kane, Stuart Dallas, Pontus Jansson, Kalvin Phillips.
Mark Duffy OFF
Ryan Leanord ON (76)
Lee Evans OFF
John Lundstram ON (87)
Billy Sharp OFF
Ricky Holmes ON (89)
Kemar Roofe OFF
Pablo Hernandez ON (45)
Ezgjan Alioski OFF
Hadi Sacko ON (74)
Kalvin Phillips OFF
Caleb Ekuban ON (76)
Sheffield United (3): Lee Evans, John Fleck and Billy Sharp
Leeds (2): Kemar Roofe and Adam Forshaw
Attendance: 27,553 (2236 away)
MOTM: Billy Sharp
Chris Wilder: “We needed that. I’m sick and tired about banging on about performing and not getting results. The effect of Paul would’ve given them a boost, so it wasn’t the most free flowing of performances but one to take way in a Yorkshire derby.
“We’re a bit disappointed we didn’t take the game away from Leeds earlier on. We came out the blocks but we lost the ball and then its game on and all to play for.
“Listen, you know I’ve got a good group of players and I don’t leave players out who are doing fantastically. In my eyes Sharp and Duffy have had an outstanding attitude to train like they have out of the team and respond like they’ve had.
“We didn’t deserve anything last week against Wolves. It’s difficult to win a promotion but they’ll do it as an outstanding game. Went toe to toe against Villa. Got beat. Same against Bristol City. Got beat. We’ve possibly been punished form mistakes we’ve made but we’ve played consistently.
“Whatever people have their opinions of us is up to them but we feel we’ve got a group of players who have settled into the Championship well. There are some huge clubs who have struggled to get out and today was a big result for us.
“You want players to play well all the time, especially against his old club and we felt it was right to put him back in. It’s a bit harsh to say he players well in only big games but he got us off for a good start.
“You know he’s a bit unfortunate. He hasn’t played more games but Billy understands that and you know I felt at the time we need to change it up. The ball is always in the court of the players. They decide. They’re desperate to play and it’s about taking opportunities when you have a chance to affect the game. Don’t be the victims and tell me that it’s my fault.
“Maybe I need to adjust myself a little bit and maybe I’ll learn and think that in the last five minutes be a bit more cautious and play safe but the attitude of the group is to take the handbrake off and for them to go for it.”
Paul Heckingbottom: “That wasn’t nice, especially the way we came back in the second half. Sheffield United are a team at the best in the league when gaining momentum. They just kept the ball in the box, and they got the goal from it. When we look back at the goals they are the things we don’t want to see but we have to work on them.
“United were playing roads around us all of the time and we playing backwards and making Pierre isolated, and earlier in the second half we then gained the territory.
“No I haven’t seen the penalty. From gut instinct and the reaction of everyone I would’ve said no penalty but if it’s different then we’ll see.
“As games run out you get further and further away but the beauty is that we’re playing a run of games against teams now above us in the league. If we can manage to win these games then we can take an initiative from that.
“Positives for the next game? I asked the players after the game what was the difference second half. We were positive and had more energy. Now we have to look at the details needed to win games and commitment is certainly one of them.
“There was a bit of apprehension out there and it’s my job to give them that freedom. We don’t want them to become subconsciously stifle and if they can make up for their mistakes then great, but we don’t want a lack of commitment.”
Billy Sharp: “Yeh, it was nice you know. I’m not bothered how they come as I scored one similar for Doncaster [Rovers] against Leicester. I saw the keeper going for it but it went in the net. My dad texted me this morning saying you’ve got five in five and I knew I was going to score.
“After our goal they looked like the better team and we’ve grounded out the result well, and that’s what we’ve got to do in this league. You’ve got to be confident and step up for the penalty. We’ve been playing alright so everyone’s happy in the changing room.
“It’s a good appointment for them and I’m sure he’ll do well. I saw on the team-sheet that Liam Cooper is the longest serving Leeds player and I signed on the same day as him. If he gets a chance he’ll do well.
“My dad’s the one who’s kept me going in the last few weeks. He knows everything about stats and I need to keep my head up and get the goals. We’ve got a good group and we’ve been working hard in training.
“I’ve had stick before when I’ve celebrated against former clubs. My job is to score goals so I’m happy to celebrate.”