It seems incredible now but last summer, when Sheffield United were preparing for their first Championship campaign since 2011, concerns were being expressed about the firepower at Chris Wilder’s disposal.
Seventeen games, 12 wins and nearly 30 goals later, Billy Sharp, who is responsible for scoring eight of them, hopes those thoughts are now a distant and slightly embarrassing memory.
“At the start of the season, we believed we could do well,” he says. “We’ve just got to keep on going, keep on playing well and keep on grinding out results.”
In truth, United have been doing nothing of the sort since blazing a trail out of League One last term. Instead it is a combination of attacking football, played with real flair and purpose, which sees them enter tonight’s game against Fulham ranked second in the table. Not grit, guts and pluck.
Sharp’s partnership with Leon Clarke has been central to United’s emergence as promotion contenders although, like his manager, the centre-forward is adept at portraying them as anything but. The two men have hit the target a combined total of seven times in the club’s previous two outings. Clarke, who claimed all four of United’s efforts during the 4-1 win over Hull City earlier this month, netted his ninth of the season at Burton Albion four days ago after Sharp had earlier claimed a brace.
“Clarkey is on fire at the minute,” United’s captain continues. “Everything he touches is going into the back of the net. I think we’re working well together. He’s throwing defenders around to create space for me and I’d like to think I’m linking up well with him.”
As well as disproving the theory that promoted teams must adopt a conservative gameplan in order to succeed at a higher level, United’s performances of late have also rubbished assumptions about the dynamics of their squad. Sharp and Clarke, according to some social media commentators, could barely stand the sight of each other after first being paired together in Wilder’s attack.
United’s captain has previously gone on record to state his bemusement at those rumours and, as Slaviša Jokanović’s side prepare for the journey to South Yorkshire, is happy to scotch them again.
“Leon is in a confident mood at the moment and I know how he feels,” Sharp says. “When you are on a run like that, you think you’re going to score everything single game and he’s been a threat all season. Last season, he wasn’t fit for the start but he had a good pre-season this time around, has been really fit and strong, and it’s showing on the pitch.”
Of course, United 3-1 victory at the Pirelli Stadium came at a price, with Paul Coutts suffering a horrific leg injury as he attempted a shot on goal during the first-half. Wilder confirmed during yesterday’s pre-match media conference that the midfielder has been ruled-out until the summer after being diagnosed with a fractured tibia, although doctors advised he did not require surgery after performing a series of tests over the weekend.
Samir Carruthers, John Lundstram and Chris Basham are all potential partners for John Fleck although the latter is unlikely to be moved from wing-back until George Baldock proves his fitness following a hamstring/calf injury. The former MK Dons defender missed the meetings with City and Albion after limping-out of last month’s trip to QPR.
“I think we were fortunate last season in that we didn’t get many long-term injuries,” Sharp admits. “We have had two or three this season already but it’s shown the strength in the squad and why the gaffer and his staff recruit so well. Hopefully, the lads who do come in for Couttsy take their chance.”
With leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers not in action until tomorrow, United will climb to first if they beat Fulham. Jokanović’s men, last term’s play-off semi-finalists, are regarded by many as the best passing team in the division and their possession based approach will present a very different type of test to the more industrious Albion.
“It’s early days but we have played nearly all the teams now in the first-half of the season and we know what everybody is about,” Sharp says. “We know what they can do and we know we can play really well. Teams are changing their formations a bit against us and Burton did that. But we were professional and did our job.”
“It’s better to be up at the top than chasing or playing catch-up,” Sharp adds. “But we just want to keep improving and stay focused.”