Match Analysis: Billy Sharp's reluctance to discuss his first hat-trick in over a decade reveals what makes Championship leaders Sheffield United tick
Ten years, two months and 11 days after last claiming a hat-trick, Billy Sharp preferred to talk about his colleagues and particularly Leon Clarke.
It spoke volumes, about both the personality of its captain and Chris Wilder's squad as a whole. LittleÂ wonder, after watching the 32-year-old's goals propel them back to the summit,Â Paul Cook described Sheffield United as the competition's best team. In, Wigan Athletic's manager explained, the true sense of the word.
Sharp was the undoubted star of a show which, thanks in no small part to the visitors' enterprisingÂ approach, saw United confirm they can plot a course through games rather than simply grab them by theÂ
throat. That quaility, which Cook and Wilder later attributed to cameraderie, could prove invaluable whenÂ their nearest rivals, including Middlesbrough, West Bromwich Albion and Leeds, spend lavishly againÂ during January's transfer window.
"We've got great togetherness in the changing room," Sharp, after scoring for the ninth, 10th and then 11thÂ time this season, said. "The staff work hard on it but, as a group, it comes naturally to us.Â
"They're an easy group to captain. We're all decent people and we're all ready to work hard for each other.
"It's not about individuals. People talk about 'us' not 'me' and that's music to my ears."
Around an hour before arriving in Bramall Lane's media suite to help dissect the game, Sharp's reaction toÂ his second effort revealed exactly what he meant. Recalled to the starting eleven after watching United'sÂ draw with Stoke City from the bench, the centre-forward could have been forgiven for hogging the limelightÂ following a clinical conversion at the far post. Instead, resisting the temptation to milk the moment in frontÂ of an ecstatic crowd, he ran straight towards the man who not only provided the assist but also had takenÂ his place, and his armband, four days earlier.
"Huge praise to Leon for that one, I thought he was brilliant out there again," Sharp continued, belying theÂ myth the two endure a difficult relationship. "He had a lot to do, to get that ball across on his so-calledÂ weaker foot, but that's exactly what he did. I got a good connection on it, the ball went in, but the creditÂ should go to him."
Although the margin of victory suggests United had it easy, in truth their afternoon was anything but.Â Cook expressed concerns about Wigan's fragility away from home, where they have now lost six in a row,Â before insisting "whoever finishes above" his good friend Wilder's side "will probably go up." Yet thereÂ were periods in this fixture, most notably during a nip-and-tuck first-half, when Cook's charges were on top.
Indeed, when Sharp restored United's advantage following Chey Dunkley's own goal and Kai Naismith'sÂ equaliser, the former Chesterfield chief looked understandably distraught. Wigan, Sharp acknowledged,Â had caused problems going forward but were ultimately undone by a combination of United's persistenceÂ and the soft underbelly their guile eventually exposed.
"We knew they were going to come and give it a go," Sharp said. "We've seen teams come here, sit backÂ and try to shut us out before nicking it 1-0. They weren't like that.
"We've talked about raising the bar and our standards on the pitch. We weren't at our best today but weÂ got the three points so that's good. But we're trying to compete at the top end and so we've got to be at ourÂ best every week."
Wigan, promoted from League One last term, appear equipped to finish comfortably in mid-table and, ifÂ they become more durable, possibly more. United, meanwhile, should be encouraged by the fact theyÂ prevailed despite being forced to make adjustments when John Egan and Mark Duffy withdrew throughÂ injury. David McGoldrick, whose shift into the 'Number 10' position allowed Clarke and Sharp to repriseÂ their partnership, brought a more attacking dimension to the role. But with Wilder predicting the midfielderÂ could return against Nottingham Forest on Saturday, United's coaching staff could have a tough selectionÂ call to make.
"We've got a big squad," Sharp said. "There are some very good players who can't even get on the bench.Â
"But that's why standards are so high, because they are pushing and making sure the lads who are in thereÂ are okay. You can't just have 11 or 14 players doing that anymore. It doesn't work. Things have moved on."
"The gaffer pulled me and told me I was coming back in for this one," Sharp added, reflecting upon isÂ absence against City. "A few years ago I might have sulked. When I was younger, I'd have been frustrated.Â But I'm captain of the club and I've got to set an example. So the main thing for me is supporting the team. IfÂ Â I'm not scoring goals, I want to be doing other things for the team and for the club."
United, who will be without Chris Basham at the City Ground due to suspension, were posed a series ofÂ questions during the opening exchanges before Dunkley turned the defender's cross into his own net.Â
Dean Henderson, who later made a fine save to prevent Reece James' free-kick reaching its target, thwartedÂ Gary Roberts from a set-piece but could not prevent his replacement, Naismith, threading home NathanÂ Byrne's cross. Sharp restored United's advantage moments before the interval and, soon after, pouncedÂ again following Clarke's fine work. Oliver Norwood, who had sent Clarke racing through, also had a hand inÂ Sharp's third when James was caught out by his pass and Enda Stevens helped it on. Joe Garner becameÂ the second of Wigan's substitutes to score but his effort, from a Josh Windass centre, was simply aÂ consolation.
"That was my first hat-trick since 2008, against Queens Park Rangers, here," Sharp, now in his third spellÂ with United said. "But the win was the most important thing. That was just a bonus."