LEON CLARKE arrived at Hillsborough shortly before noon yesterday to jibes of ‘Wednesday reject’ from the assembled welcoming committee as the striker stepped off the Sheffield United team bus.
He left a few hours later with a place in Sheffield derby folklore assured and a smile as wide as the gulf in class that had separated these two Steel City combatants for most of the previous 90 minutes. With good cause, too, as Clarke, in common with every player sporting red and white, had produced one of the great derby performances.
Owls fans may recall the latest instalment of a rivalry dating back almost 124 years and point to the shortcomings of their own side, and in particular a defence that struggled horribly throughout.
But that should not take anything away from a quite wonderful all-round team display from a Blades side who are today able to bask in the status of being the first in the long, long history of this derby to score four times at the home of their bitterest rival.
First to every 50-50 ball and utterly dominant for all but a 20-minute spell after half-time, United could – and probably should – have won by a more convincing margin.
Clarke netted twice, but, with steadier finishing, would have left with the match-ball after scoring a hat-trick, while John Fleck and Mark Duffy both produced stellar goals that will surely be played over and over again on TV screens in every United living room for years to come.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of a quite remarkable afternoon, however, was how comfortable David Brooks looked on the big stage in what was only his second start in the Football League.
The last time the Steel City had been staged in February, 2012, Brooks was 14 and still part of Manchester City’s Academy. His switch to the Blades’ youth set-up followed two years later and the club have known pretty much since then that they had a special talent on their hands.
Now, most of the country is in on the secret, too, after an ice-cool display amid the pressure cooker atmosphere of a derby that was also being played in front of the live Sky cameras.
Fearless running and an ability to embarrass an opposing defender, as Brooks did to Jack Hunt during the second half with a cheeky nutmeg, characterised a performance that drew rich praise from his manager.
“He has come in and nothing fazed him,” said Chris Wilder when asked about someone whose only previous start outside cup competitions – before his full league debut the previous weekend aganst Norwich City –had come in the National League when on loan at FC Halifax Town. “He just got on with it from the first minute; he was outstanding.
“For him to come into their backyard in front of 30,000 and produce a performance like that means he has a bright future ahead of him.”
Brooks set the tone for both his and United’s afternoon inside the first couple of minutes, as three would-be tacklers were left floundering by a weaving run that was only ended by a crude challenge from Tom Lees.
Further punishment followed for the Owls when Brooks, after using Paul Coutts as a decoy, cleverly back-heeled the resulting free-kick to John Fleck who drilled in an unstoppable left foot shot to put the visitors ahead.
If Wednesday could be excused much of the blame for the opener by the quality of Fleck’s strike, there was no such mitigation on 15 minutes when an innocuous punt forward by Enda Stevens was turned into a defence-splitting pass by a shambolic back-line and Clarke capitalised ruthlessly by firing past Keiren Westwood.
Falling two goals behind so early should have been enough to spark the hosts into life, but it was the Blades who looked the most likely to add a third as Clarke twice went close either side of Chris Basham shooting narrowly over at full stretch.
Then, though, came the lifeline Wednesday so badly needed in stoppage-time at the end of the first half when Gary Hooper touched in a Ross Wallace cross.
Visibly buoyed by Hooper’s 100th goal in English football, the Owls rediscovered their attacking swagger after the restart and the equaliser came 24 minutes from time via an unlikely source.
Lucas Joao, whose previous goal in Owls’ colours had come in August 2016 during a League Cup defeat to Cambridge United, supplied the finish following neat play by Kieran Lee, Barry Bannan and Adam Reach that had opened up the Blades’ defence. At that stage, the momentum seemed to be with the home side but, just 104 seconds later, United were back in front and, again, the strike was a pearler.
Collecting a chipped ball over the top, Duffy left Joost van Aken bamboozled by two turns in quick succession that were followed by Westwood being beaten from an acute angle. Cue pandemonium in not only the United technical area, but also among the 2,339 fans fortunate enough to get a ticket for their club’s first visit to Hillsborough in 2,037 days.
That 2012 derby had ended in an Owls victory, but, once ahead for a second time in the afternoon yesterday, the Blades were never going to pass up this chance for revenge. Sure enough, a fourth goal duly arrived 13 minutes from time when an exchange of passes between Clarke and Brooks culminated in the ball being chipped towards the penalty area.
Lees darted across but merely headed the ball against van Aken. Clarke, ever alert, needed no second invitation as he skipped clear of the duo before firing past Westwood to send the visiting fans into raptures once again.
It was a sweet moment for a striker who spent three and a half years at Hillsborough before leaving in the wake of the club’s 2010 relegation and the perfect riposte to those who had earlier dismissed him as a ‘reject’.