Sheffield United: It wasn’t just the goal that proved Leon Clarke is back in the right frame of mind

The Sheffield United striker was on target against Stoke City
The Sheffield United striker was on target against Stoke City

Midway through the second-half, minutes after scoring the goal that should have condemned Stoke City to defeat, Leon Clarke turned to berate a team mate for misplacing a pass as he wheeled away from Ashley Willams.

It was the moment, even more so than the finish beyond a despairing Jack Butland, that suggested the Sheffield United centre-forward is back.

Last term's leading scorer, Clarke had cut an increasingly subdued figure as he struggled to reproduce that form. But this was the 33-year-old at his demonstrative best; gesticulating towards team mates and, when the opportunity presented itself, harassing opponents.

"Without a doubt, that will be a weight off Leon's shoulders," Chris Wilder, the United manager admitted, following last night’s draw with Gary Rowett's side. "I thought his overall display was excellent but the most important thing, from the player's point of view, was putting the ball in the back of the net.

"He's contributed, he's kept on going and our respect for him has never waned. But, for all of that, he knows what his job is and what he's judged on. So, from a personal perspective, that should do him the world of good."

If, as Wilder suspects, Clarke's first of the season marks the start of a flurry it could prove a pivotal moment in United's campaign. Although they ended the match in second place, Joe Allen's 88th minute equaliser denying them the chance to climb above leaders Middlesbrough, United have still been wasteful in recent weeks. Speaking after the meeting with City, Wilder insisted the fact they were disappointed not to beat visitors with £68.5m worth of talent in their starting eleven was a sign of progress. The fact they are once again competing at the top end of the division, while room for improvement remains, is a source of encouragement for both him and his staff. Yet, with the January transfer window fast approaching, Wilder acknowledges it is a habit they must kick.

Leon Clarke in action for Sheffield United

Leon Clarke in action for Sheffield United

Hence his delight that Clarke combined his effort, reacting first when Oliver Norwood struck a post, with a performance.

"As far as I'm concerned," Wilder said, "That was Leon showing what he's all about. He linked things up well, he put a real shift in and got his rewards for that. 

"I might be contradicting myself a bit because I'm not usually one to talk about taking positives, I prefer talking about results. But hopefully it was telling that the two - the performance and the goal - went together. As I say, in their minds, when those come together, it's what everyone who plays that position looks for."

After preferring Clarke to Billy Sharp - "It wasn't a criticism of Bill. He knows it's about the group and the bigger picture" - Wilder must now decide if the former Sheffield Wednesday and Wolverhampton Wanderers marksman retains his place when Wigan Athletic visit South Yorkshire this weekend. Midfielder Paul Coutts will also be hoping to make his first start since recovering from serious injury following four appearances from the bench.

Leon Clarke looked back to his best against Stoke City

Leon Clarke looked back to his best against Stoke City

"We want dilemmas," Wilder said. "We want tough decisions but we'll always go with what we think is best for any given situation."

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder analysed Leon Clarke's latest performance

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder analysed Leon Clarke's latest performance