THE man who emphatically proved the difference in the last league meeting between two aspiring Yorkshire rivals is no longer around – and for that, Sheffield United manager Nigel Clough is grateful.
But while Bradford City supporters may be steadfastly moving on following the £1.2m exit of Nakhi Wells to neighbours Huddersfield Town, the Bermudian striker at least remains in the thoughts of Clough, albeit from a safe distance.
Wells’s predatory nous has terrorised many a lower-league defence in the past few years, including the Blades, who succumbed to his irresistible scoring advances in a 2-0 loss at Valley Parade in late August, with the striker netting both goals.
As partnerships go, his little-and-large combination with James Hanson was probably as good as it gets in League One circles.
It is something Clough is the first to acknowledge and with powerhouse forwards of the ilk of Chris Porter and Billy Paynter at his disposal, he admits that finding a Wells-type – blessed with pace, craft and goalscoring instinct – is high on his wish list.
Clough is conscious he does possess a game-breaker in the shape of the rejuvenated Jose Baxter, but a pacy and direct option akin to Wells is something he feels the Blades still lack and one which would help supplement Baxter’s guile.
On finding a player in the mould of Wells, who showed on Clough’s radar at Derby a few years ago, the Blades’ chief said: “There’s very few natural goalscorers around like him.
“The partnership he had with James Hanson was also very important. When either one of them didn’t play, they were less of a threat, I think.
“When they were together, both made the most of each other’s abilities. They were a good partnership and pairing.
“That sort of striker (Wells) is one we are looking at and there’s a few names in the frame.
“At the moment, we’re putting a lot of emphasis on Jose, who has done incredibly well for us.
“But we realise we’ve got 20-odd games to go and is he going to be able to play those between now and the end of the season at the level we want him to?
“Maybe we’ll need to take a little of the onus off him sometimes, as well.”
On facing Bradford without Wells, Clough added: “He’s a very good goalscorer and someone we actually had identified at Derby two or three years ago. Andy Garner went to see Bradford and came back and said, ‘There’s a young skinny lad at Bradford who is a natural finisher’.
“He was out of contract and then he signed a new deal. But we kept our eye on him in the last couple of years. I always thought he could do it at a higher level and play in the Championship.
“It’s very, very difficult for them to replace. It’s just the way it works these days; you get somebody and you can’t hang onto them. You look at Bradford being not far off the play-offs and ideally they would say, ‘Can we keep him around to try and get us in the top six?’ But they have not been able to do that.
“We are pleased to be playing Bradford without him, but they will still cause us one or two problems with what they have got left.
“They are a good, hard-working side and after last season’s success it’s a case of building on it this season.”
Recent form and circumstances would suggest that the Blades are slight favourites going into Clough’s first taste of a Yorkshire derby – after sampling plenty of the East Midlands variety, especially between A52 rivals Derby County and Nottingham Forest, over the years.
Despite losing their last two League One away games, the Blades are enjoying something of an upturn on home soil, where they have tasted defeat just once in six games in Clough’s tenure and he is anxious for that to continue.
By contrast, Phil Parkinson’s side have found form and results hard to come by both at home and away and head to Sheffield on an eight-match winless streak, having won just once in their last 16 outings in all competitions.
But Clough, whose side start the first instalment of a Bramall Lane triple-header, insists he would swap the Blades’ lowly position for Bradford’s mid-table berth, despite City fading somewhat after being in the play-off mix in the opening phase of the season.
Clough, whose side have suffered derby embarrassment this term with miserable episodes at both Valley Parade and the New York Stadium, said: “I think Bradford have just levelled off a little bit. They are going about things right.
“It can be too much to expect back-to-back promotions sometimes. But we’d swap positions if they want to.”
On today’s encounter at Bramall Lane, where Bradford have won just once in 18 attempts since September, 1934, he added: “There’s obviously pride at stake in the Yorkshire derbies.
“It may only be three points at stake, but it always feels a little bit more when you do get the victory. It’s my first experience of it and I am looking forward to it.”
Despite being feted for their stunning recent FA Cup triumph at Premier League Aston Villa, the Blades were handed something of a comedown by virtue of a 2-1 defeat at Notts County last weekend, when – as in the New Year’s Day game at Walsall – the visitors paid the price for a lack of ruthlessness up front.
In both instances, the Blades took the lead only to finish on the wrong side of 2-1 League One scorelines.
Overall, however, Clough has been pleased with performance levels of late, although he says a bit more ‘power-play’ would not go amiss.
He said: “We feel a little bit unfortunate, having taken the lead in both games.
“We should have got at least a point out of them.
“I have been speaking to the players this week about the importance of getting that first goal, not sitting back and going forward to get the game’s second.
“That was especially the case at Notts County.
“But we are starting nice and bright and taking the game to the opposition.
“What we need to do is sustain that pressure for longer periods. That will come as we build.”