VIDEO: Good day for Blades and Brayford - Sheffield United 3 Oldham 0
There must have been times this season when John Brayford struggled to recognise the club he first fell in love with two years ago.
Sheffield United, whose fairytale march on the FA Cup semi-finals helped persuade the former Cardiff City defender to swap Championship football for the hurly-burly of League One, are still rooted in the third tier of English competition.
And the intoxicating relationship between players and supporters which once carried the team towards Wembley has become increasingly strained by a series of mediocre results.
This victory over an Oldham Athletic side fighting for its life at the wrong end of the table is unlikely to repair all of the damage United’s recent failures have caused. But it was enthusiastically greeted by three-quarters of the Bramall Lane crowd, and Brayford hopes it at least marks the start of the healing process.
“The fans here were a major factor why I came back,” he said. “To play in this city, for this football club, is an honour. It would be nice to get the good times back, but we are the only ones who can do that.
“People pay their money and they want to see attacking football. If they see that, they will get right behind us. People want to see a bit of passion. Fans would do anything to play in that shirt and we have got to try and reflect that on the pitch. I think we did that out there.”
United, now 11th in the table with only 10 games remaining, face an uphill struggle to qualify for the play-offs. But Saturday’s performance, embellished by goals from Ryan Flynn and Billy Sharp after Brayford had opened the scoring, ensured they travel to fifth-placed Millwall this weekend still with a fighting chance.
Alex Baptiste, on loan from Middlesbrough, demonstrated the value of pace at the back while experienced campaigners such as Dean Hammond, David Edgar and captain Jay McEveley took care of the basics and provided their more creative colleagues with the platform to impress.
Boss Nigel Adkins was effusive in his praise for Hammond afterwards - “How well did he do? Absolutely superb” - but the contribution of youngsters Che Adams and Ben Whiteman was equally decisive, with the latter, one of six home-grown players in the hosts’ matchday squad, celebrating his first league start with two assists.
It was a brave call from the manager but one which ensured United went about their business with the type of vibrancy they have previously lacked.
“Ben has come in today and done a proper job,” Brayford, who powered home from long range after collecting the teenager’s pass, said. “He is a smashing lad.
“It’s always nice to see young players come through. The senior players try and give them as much encouragement as they can. The last thing you want is people on your back as a young lad. It’s difficult enough playing in front of 20,000 when you are 28, so it’s not easy being 18.
“We just try and help them, tell them they are doing well, and all the young lads have been a credit to themselves. It’s been a pleasure to play with them. Because the lads have come through the academy, people see them as one of their own. They give the young lads encouragement.
“There are going to be mistakes along the way, but that’s just football and it’s how they react to them. I feel old, I am 30 in 18 months. But I am still Peter Pan at heart.”
Despite being a cultured midfielder during his own playing days, John Sheridan has turned ugly since taking charge of Oldham Athletic for a second time.
His decision to prioritise substance rather than style has paid dividends - the visitors have conceded less than a goal per game after appointing him in January - but, barring a decent Oldham period of second-half pressure which saw substitute Curtis Main hit the crossbar after drawing a fine save from George Long, United rarely looked back after Brayford’s left-foot volley found the back of the net.
A fine solo effort from Flynn, fortuitously released by Whiteman, doubled their advantage before Sharp, scoring for the 16th time this term, completed the rout. Brayford, who completed his permanent transfer to United midway through last term, was responsible for providing the pass which saw the centre-forward convert at the near post.
“We have to take this momentum forward now,” he said. “We have 10 games left now and basically we want to win all 10.
“We are in the position we are in the table because we have been inconsistent, played well one week, then not well the next. That’s the truth.
“We can’t go to Millwall on Saturday, and say ‘oh well, we played well last week’. We need to go to Millwall and win. It’s time for people to step up to the plate now.”
Sheffield United: Long 7, Brayford 6, Flynn 7, Sharp 6, Done 7, McEveley 7, Baptiste 7, Adams 7 (Calvert-Lewin 65, 7), Edgar 7, Hammond 8 (Reed 71), Whiteman 8 (Coutts 76). Not used: Howard, Sammon, Reed, McGahey, G Kelly.
Oldham Athletic: Coleman 6, Mills 6, Dieng 6, J Wilson 6, Jones 6 (B Wilson 60, 6), Amadi-Holloway 6 (Thiele 60, 6), Forte 6, Palmer 6, Winchester 6, Gerrard 6, Dummigan 6 (Main 46, 7). Not used: Brown, L Kelly, Croft, Cornell.
Referee: Peter Bankes (Merseyside).