Leon Clarke might have played only eight games since joining Sheffield United during the close season.
But the centre-forward, who was recently withdrawn from the firing line to accelerate his recovery from injury, has still made a big impression on Chris Wilder despite being absent for long periods of the campaign.
“Leon is an excellent targetman, he scores goals and is a really, really good player,” the United manager said. “Those are the reasons why we brought him here. We knew there must have been a reason for him not showing that. But Leon stuck his hand up to play on numerous occasions and he deserves enormous credit for doing that. It says a lot about his attitude, character and desire.”
Clarke (pictured) will again be absent when United, unbeaten in nine League One outings, visit second-placed Bradford City tomorrow. Wilder’s team will leapfrog Stuart McCall’s side if, four days after recording a second successive victory, they win again at Valley Parade.
With Clarke still wearing a special boot to protect the ankle bone it was discovered he had chipped soon after leaving Bury in July, Billy Sharp and Matt Done are again expected to lead United’s attack although Caolan Lavery provides an alternative from the bench. Clarke will resume running next week and could, Wilder revealed, return to action shortly after MK Dons travel to South Yorkshire later this month.
“The lads in there at the moment have really worked and delivered,” Wilder said. “But when Leon comes back, because he’ll be a big player, it will make us even stronger. He’s been involved and contributed but there came a time, for him and for us, when the (injury) situation just had to get sorted. When he’s available, it will be a big boost at an important period of the season.”
Wilder prides himself on plain-speaking. But the United manager’s pronouncements contain enough coded messages and psychological ploys to satisfy a John le Carré fan. Tuesday’s post-match press address, after his team had dispatched Shrewsbury Town 3-0, raised plenty of smiles when Wilder announced there were “No Billy Big Times” in the visitors’ squad. But, reading between the lines, it also served to remind its members that none of them are bigger than the club. Likewise Wilder’s decision to talk about Jake Wright, Kieron Freeman and Daniel Lafferty when questioned about Ethan Ebanks-Landell. Or his claim that the biggest cheer of the evening from the away end came, not when Billy Sharp opened the scoring, but after United’s defence thwarted a counter-attack when the contest was already won.
“We want our players to be confident and positive,” Wilder continued. “In a position to play their best most aggressive football because you can see and hear our supporters are recognising that.”
Wilder, speaking at United’s training complex yesterday, confirmed O’Connell is expected to be available for selection against City after missing the trip to Shropshire due to illness.
“Jack will train with us today,” Wilder said. “I don’t see there being any problems there.”