Leaders Scunthorpe might beg to differ but, on the evidence of this thoroughly absorbing game, it is difficult to imagine a situation where these two clubs do not win automatic promotion at the end of the season.
Bradford City and Sheffield United, League One’s heavyweight teams, stood toe to toe, slugged it out and dragged each other into the trenches during a contest which demonstrated why both fancy their chances of going the distance.
It was fast, furious, absolutely breathless and, when referee Jon Moss finally brought the action to a halt, probably fitting that neither side had quite managed to land a knockout blow.
“I think both teams will go a long way, certainly on what we’ve seen there,” Billy Sharp, the United captain, said. “We both showed quality and showed we can score goals. Both sides will be disappointed but also relieved to get something out of the game. Hopefully, we are both up there but with us higher than them.”
Sharp, who has now scored seven times in his last seven outings against City, edged United ahead when he met Mark Duffy’s cross at the far post. Stuart McCall’s side equalised through Billy Clarke after Matt Done had missed a glorious chance to extend the visitors’ lead before Sharp claimed his fourth goal in only two matches after being released by a John Fleck free-kick.
Timothee Dieng appeared to have secured all three points for City when, following Jordy Hiwula’s equaliser, he glanced home from a Matthew Kilgallon centre. But Chris Basham restored parity, scrambling home from close-range after Fleck’s corner had snaked its way across the six yard box. The result, which extends United’s unbeaten run in the competition to 10 matches, means City remain second while Chris Wilder’s squad climbs to third.
“That run shows we have come a long way since making a difficult start (to the campaign),” Sharp said. “We have something to build on. We won’t rest on our laurels though. We’ll try to keep driving on. Because that’s the attitude you’ve got to have.”
A PROPER FOOTBALL MATCH
Unlike ‘Red Monday’, Yorkshire’s ‘Super Saturday’ lived-up to the pre-match hype. It was not difficult to decipher why. Wilder and McCall are managers with deep emotional ties to their respective clubs who demand players demonstrate the same.
On the pitch, despite acknowledging their respect for one another beforehand, the two teams were determined to show absolutely none and went about their business in ferocious fashion. This was proper football. Taking place in front of proper fans.
“In the tunnel, I could tell both teams were up for it,” Sharp said. “I just felt it was going to be a good game although maybe not quite as good as it turned out. Bradford are a good side and good at what they do.
“They played short and long, mixed things up, to try and mess us around. But I felt we caused them problems too with the things we did too.”
Sharp left the ground clutching the match ball after claiming he had got the decisive touch on United’s third goal. Basham, though, was having none of it.
“Flecky came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Great assist’. I just replied, ‘Of course it was,’” he said. “Sharpy scored two goals and if it was his goal then that makes it a hat-trick. Ethan (Ebanks-Landell) was behind me and he wants to look after the back lads so said it was my goal. And I thought it was, to be fair. I am not going to lie. He (Sharp) got a ball from Bradford, I am not sure how. But no-one has signed it yet. I won’t be, that’s for sure! Plus, Ethan is a big lad and he’s with me.”
“I got a touch but Bash got a touch afterwards,” Sharp countered. “Was it going in anyway? But I am going to claim the goal because I love scoring. The main thing is the ball hit the post and rolled over the line. That is what I was most happy about.”
“The referee handed me the ball,” he added. “I asked, ‘What do I do now because it had gone down as a Basham goal?’ He said that will be it. He writes it up in his report. Seriously, the main thing is we got a point.”
AN AMAZING RECORD
Sharp admitted earlier this term that he loves “playing on the edge.” That probably explains why, given the febrile atmosphere inside Valley Parade, he continued his remarkable sequence of goals against City.
“There are teams who you just score against,” Sharp said. “I had a feeling I would score against Bradford. Their fans wind me up and I like to wind them back up. The referee did get on to me not to go too far. I was expecting them to start singing when they went 3-2 up but it was all good natured. I was just happy to be able to play football in a good atmosphere like this.”
THE RIGHT BALANCE
Both United and City possess character in abundance. But they also have got plenty of quality too.
Sharp had an effort disallowed for seemingly innocuous foul on Dieng following Duffy’s perfectly weighted free-kick while Matthew Kilgallon’s delivery was oozed quality too. That combination of guts and guile is the reason why both clubs will, privately at least, back themselves to reach the Championship next term.
“It was end to end, a hell of a game, and I know the gaffer was disappointed in us that we couldn’t get control,” Sharp said. “But sometimes it happens like that.”