TONY CASCARINO, famously once bought by Gillingham in exchange for a set of tracksuits and some corrugated iron, was yesterday’s guest of honour, but it was a player who has been the subject of a more conventional series of big money transfers who settled matters in dramatic fashion.
Fourth official Andy Woolmer had just held up the board to indicate there would be three minutes of stoppage time when Billy Sharp coolly converted a penalty to claim all three points for Sheffield United.
It had been far from a vintage display by Sharp, who during his career has been involved in deals totalling around £4.5m. The lifelong Blade had missed a couple of chances that, typically, he would expect to finish.
But, when United needed a cool head after Josh Pask had inexplicably handled Chris Basham’s cross, Sharp provided just that to fire past Jonathan Bond from 12 yards to send the 408 travelling fans into raptures.
It represented a happy ending to an afternoon that had seen United concede the first goal for the sixth league game running, Bradley Dack doing the damage with a quite exquisite first-half free-kick.
On the balance of play, however, the win was deserved, with Chris Wilder’s men creating the lion’s share of chances and, once level through Kieron Freeman’s 65th-minute equaliser, the visitors always looked the more likely to snatch the points.
“Billy had missed a couple of chances but he had the bottle to take it,” said Wilder when asked by The Yorkshire Post about his match-winner. “As captain of this football club, he showed the responsibility and took it on his shoulders to walk forward and stick that penalty in.
“That takes a lot of doing. He could have quite easily gone, ‘No, not for me’. We have loads of characters like that.”
‘People are watching all around the world,’ had been the shout over the PA system from the rather excitable chap on the microphone as the players emerged from the tunnel in the corner of Priestfield ahead of kick-off.
Well, if the good folk of Gillingham and Sheffield really were joined by football fans from Geneva to Sydney and several points in between then their patience in sitting through a largely scrappy opening half hour was rewarded when the opening goal arrived.
A clumsy tackle by Daniel Lafferty, on debut, as Cody McDonald burst into the box created the opening, but it was Dack’s brilliance that undid United.
As the midfielder stood over the ball with Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, it was clear the former Charlton Athletic trainee fancied his chances.
With good cause, too, as Dack took one step towards the ball before curling a quite sublime shot into the corner of Simon Moore’s net.
That the opener came after United’s best spell of the first half was as frustrating as the two chances that had just gone begging at the other end.
First, Mark Duffy drilled a 20-yard shot that Jonathan Bond proved equal to in the home goal with a smart save low to his left.
The second of those opportunities, however, really should have been taken, Sharp hesitating sufficiently when presented with the ball eight yards out for Max Ehmer to race across and pull off a last-gasp block.
United had another decent chance just before the break when Chris Basham rose above McDonald to meet a corner, but his downward header went straight at Bond.
The visitors continued to press after the interval, Bond again having to rescue the Gills with a smart save following good work from Sharp, who hustled Ryan Jackson off the ball to claim a Duffy pass.
Sharp then headed wide from a Lafferty cross when he really should have hit the target, but the Blades’ persistence finally paid off as the game moved towards the final quarter.
Matt Done and Sharp were involved in the build-up, but the final touch came from Freeman, operating as wing-back following a tactical reshuffle that had seen United field a three-man defence.
After that leveller, there were chances at either end, Emmanuel-Thomas curling a free-kick into Moore’s hands.
The goalkeeper also had a moment of panic when he dropped a Jamie O’Hara cross, but Ehmer’s shot was blocked by a scrum of red and white shirts.
For United, Leon Clarke fired just wide from a Duffy cross and Sharp opted to cross the ball once released by the excellent Paul Coutts when he was much better placed to shoot.
Lesser characters might have been affected by these spurned chances, but not Sharp, who when Pask stuck out a hand in the 90th minute and referee Andy Woolmer pointed to the spot there was no doubt who would step up and take the penalty.
His successful conversion means the season is finally up and running at Bramall Lane. Wilder added: “We changed the shape and I felt it worked really well, we had round pegs in round holes. Everyone played their part.
“To be behind at half-time was another test to overcome and I said to the players at half-time, ‘I don’t want another hard luck story’. Or to listen to how well we had played, but missed chances.
“The pleasing thing is we kept our belief and kept creating chances, that was a big three points and a deserved three points.
“There only looked like one winner once we got level. We have to use this momentum now to push on from here. Two wins in a week is pleasing, but we want more.”