The football was utterly brilliant but it was still the result that shouted loudest. Sheffield United 4 Aston Villa 1. The scoreline was enough of a wow in itself to reverberate across the football world.
As a statement, it was hugely powerful. Not just about Sheffield United setting themselves up for a genuine assault on the top positions in the Championship – but also setting themselves up to be taken ever more seriously by future opposition already wised up by last season’s play-off attempt.
It was, I think, for these reasons that Chris Wilder, usually as passionate as they come, chose to counter the euphoria all around him with a relatively subdued reaction. He went for a calm, clinical analysis of what made the performance “very good” rather than reach for superlatives that would have been fully justified.
Make no mistake, this display was absolutely exceptional. How good? In my view, as fine an exhibition as United have produced since the Currie-Woodward era. THAT good. A beaming Brian Deane, a hero of an intervening era, murmured “Brazil” under his breath when I bumped into him afterwards.
Regular Championship watchers are struggling to remember anything so compelling. Inside, the manager will have been turning cartwheels. His containment was such that you’d never have guessed. I’ve seen him more animated after narrow, albeit unlucky, defeats. And that, yet again, is good management.
As was this comment: “They (the players) understand they’re going to have to play well to get a shirt and keep in the team.”
If the increased competition, after the latest arrivals of Conor Washington, Marvin Johnson and Martin Cranie, is a driving force then it is not the only one. Because it strikes you that most of the players are driven characters anyway. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be there. It’s this self-motivation that is key.
What the newcomers provide is good options in various situations, including injury. Also pace in the case of Washington and Johnson, always a big ingredient, and experience and dependability in Cranie.
Yes, they will keep others on their toes – but make little or no impact on their pride in performance.
Maybe competition is more of a subconscious thing with players in that sense. Do you think Billy Sharp, for instance, would be any less determined had a new striker not been added? Or David McGoldrick, who led the line so superbly and selflessly last Saturday? Or Enda Stevens regarding Johnson’s arrival? Or any midfielder now that Paul Coutts is back in the squad? Or any defender with Cranie added?
It’s the type of character in the building, besides the ability, that is the Blades’ main strength. And why this squad and this manager, as a unit, will take some stopping.