“TAKE the handbrake off,” was Chris Wilder’s final instruction as his Sheffield United players left the dressing room ahead of south Yorkshire’s first derby of the season.
The Blades took their manager at his word, meaning by full-time there was precious little for Paul Heckingbottom and Barnsley to salvage from the wreckage of defeat other than the performance of goalkeeper Adam Davies.
Without the 25-year-old’s agility and reflexes, the margin of defeat could have taken on car-crash proportions for a Reds side who rarely got out of first gear and whose only real sign of life came via an attempted headbutt from Angus MacDonald that brought the club captain a red card.
Leon Clarke also rightly saw his involvement ended early by referee Tim Robinson for his part in that same 42nd-minute fracas, but it could not detract from an otherwise encouraging afternoon for a Blades side who chalked up an eighth straight win at Bramall Lane, a feat the club last achieved more than five years ago.
“It felt a bit more like last season,” said Mark Duffy, a key factor in how dominant the Blades were in only their fourth league outing since romping to the League One title with 100 points.
“The gaffer had a chat with us before the game and said, ‘Take the handbrake off’. He said, ‘We have done all right but we don’t want to do all right because we are not just here to make the numbers up’.
“We are here to win games of football. We are here to stay, definitely.
“He doesn’t want back-handed compliments, others saying his team will be all right even though we got beat. None of us want that.
“Against Barnsley, he wanted us to go full throttle because that is the way we played last year. It is hard for teams to keep with us when we do play like that.
“The Championship can be about keeping the ball and moving the ball, side to side. But we want to overload teams with bodies everywhere. At home, that is how we have got to play. We did that against Barnsley.
“When you are playing, you sometimes hear their lads saying, ‘There are players everywhere, who am I supposed to be picking up?’ That is what we want and we were like that against Barnsley.
“We had a lot of chances and their goalkeeper probably got man of the match for them. He made some unbelievable saves. Maybe we could have been a bit more clinical – myself, Sharpy and a few others – and that would have made it 3-0. I don’t think Barnsley could have moaned with that.”
If anything, Duffy’s assessment of United being worthy of a three-goal winning margin may have been overly generous to Barnsley.
Certainly, while Blades goalkeeper Jamal Blackman had hardly a save worthy of the name to make, counterpart Davies kept out three efforts that seemed certain to hit the net.
The first came inside six minutes, lovely inter-play down the United left ending with Enda Stevens picking out Billy Sharp and Davies pulling off a fine block.
Barnsley should have learned from that episode, and in particular how Jason McCarthy needed more help in repelling the hosts down his flank. The warning, however, went unheeded as, just 11 minutes later, a near carbon-copy move saw Jack O’Connell in sufficient space out wide to look up and pick out Sharp.
This time, the United captain was in unforgiving mood as he fired past Davies to break the deadlock.
After that, the first half descended into a scrappy affair that was heavy on niggling tackles and short on quality. It was completely in keeping with this general malaise that both Clarke and MacDonald received their marching orders.
An attempted through ball that ran harmlessly through to Davies in the visitors’ goal saw Clarke take exception to MacDonald stepping across his path, basically the sort of incident that happens countless times in a game without escalating further than a shout at the referee.
This time, however, things moved on quickly with Clarke claiming that MacDonald had thrown a punch. Whether this happened or not was unclear but Clarke’s response was to grab the Reds captain by the throat.
Had the incident ended there then Barnsley would no doubt have had a man’s advantage for the remainder of the derby but, instead, MacDonald attempted a head-butt to leave referee Tim Robinson with no option but the brandish two red cards.
Heckingbottom switched to a three-man defence but Davies continued to be the only Red to make a worthwhile contribution, saving brilliantly from David Brooks at close range and then turning away a goalbound header from O’Connell. Sharp also came within a whisker of converting a cross from Chris Basham.
Sheffield United: Blackman, Basham, O’Connell, Wright; Freeman, Fleck, Duffy (Brooks 66), Coutts, Stevens; L Clarke, Sharp (Evans 75). Unused substitutes: Lundstram, Lafferty, Brayford, Eastwood, Carruthers.
Barnsley: Davies, McCarthy (Ugbo 46), Jackson, MacDonald, Pearson; J Williams, Hammill, Potts, Moncur (Pinnock 46), Hedges; Bradshaw (Thiam 79). Unused substitutes: Townsend, Barnes, Mowatt, Bird.
Referee: T Robinson (Sussex).