Big Match Verdict – Dynamic duo keep Sheffield United on track for automatic promotion

Victory assured: Billy Sharp celebrates scoring the second goal for Sheffield United. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Victory assured: Billy Sharp celebrates scoring the second goal for Sheffield United. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
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Chris Basham believes Sheffield United have the squad to earn automatic promotion to the Premier League.

You only had to look at the Blades’ bench in their 2-0 win over Bolton Wanderers on Saturday, to see the strength in depth Chris Wilder has at his disposal.

Strike duo Gary Madine and Scott Hogan, with a combined value of £18m on their last transfers – plus Everton midfielder Kieran Dowell – were signed on loan in the January transfer window, yet all three had to sit and watch as goals from David McGoldrick and Billy Sharp earned the three points which keeps United in the hunt for a top-two finish.

The Blades are just three points behind leaders Leeds United with 16 games remaining and, after missing out on the play-offs last season, are determined to stay in contention.

After losing at Swansea City, United bounced back with a 2-2 draw at second-placed Norwich City, and eventually saw off a stubborn Bolton side on Saturday.

Defender Basham – who joined from Blackpool five years ago –believes it is the strongest squad in his time at Bramall Lane.

OPENING UP: David McGoldrick celebrates scoring the first goal against Bolton at Bramall Lane. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

OPENING UP: David McGoldrick celebrates scoring the first goal against Bolton at Bramall Lane. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“We are really enjoying being amongst the (promotion) group,” he said. “Every lad in the dressing rooms fancies it. The aim is promotion. Bring it on.

“Last year we had that little stutter, and maybe games like this last year, or Norwich, we may well have lost. It was good to broaden our shoulders and come out of Norwich with people saying ‘well done’.

“We got a point there, didn’t lose against them, then obviously today (against Bolton) brings out the best in us at home, where we do really well and score lots of goals.

“Everyone is pushing for a place. If they are not starting you know someone is lurking over your shoulder.

This is the strongest squad I have seen, and there’s no egos in there. Everyone wants the same goal, we talk about promotion, and everyone wants that.

Chris Basham

“We have had a great transfer window, bringing in three or four great lads. They know the Championship and are positives for us.

“We got rid of a lot of lads, but we have developed, are stronger, and have a lot of Championship experience now.

“This is the strongest squad I have seen, and there’s no egos in there. Everyone wants the same goal, we talk about promotion, and everyone wants that.

“That’s why they have come to this football club. Look at the bench, the people the gaffer can bring in, we have got a bit of everything.

AND THERE'S MORE: Billy Sharp celebrates his goal against Bolton  at Bramall Lane. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

AND THERE'S MORE: Billy Sharp celebrates his goal against Bolton at Bramall Lane. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“Last season we were pushing, but if you look at our bench last season to this season, the core strength wasn’t there.

“Obviously, 46 games in the Championship is really tough. Playing against teams like Bolton, it was big example. We kept going and know we have ammo on the bench now.”

Bolton frustrated the Blades in the first half, the visitors coming up with blocks in the area to deny goalbound shots from Enda Stevens and John Fleck.

Blades manager Wilder urged his team to up the tempo, at the interval, but it was Bolton who came closest to scoring at the start of the second half.

Luca Connell’s diagonal cross picked out Clayton Donaldson at the back post, but the former Blades striker tamely headed the ball straight at a relieved Dean Henderson.

It is over a year since Donaldson has scored in the league – playing for United at Norwich City in January, 2018 – and he never looked like ending that unhappy sequence against an efficient Blades defence.

In contrast, Sharp – at 32, two years the junior to Donaldson – has netted 26 goals since that Carrow Road trip.

Twenty have come this season – more than the entire Bolton team combined – his latest goal a close-range header from Ollie Norwood’s free-kick in the 73rd minute.

But Sharp – making his 500th league appearance – is so much more than a predator in front of goal.

It was his strength which saw him muscle Jack Hobbs off the ball, before squaring for strike partner McGoldrick – a free signing in the summer having been released by Ipswich Town – to tap home and break the stalemate on 56 minutes. Sharp also created a shooting opportunity for Fleck, heading the ball into the midfielder’s path, only to see the ball end up high into the Kop.

“We create a lot of goal-scoring opportunities,” said Basham. “Some teams don’t do that, they sit behind the ball and maybe get one or two chances.

“We create so many opportunities, the boys are chomping at the bit to score the goals.”

Sharp and McGoldrick – with a combined age of 63 – have bagged 31 goals between them this season.

Basham said: “I still can’t believe that we had David McGoldrick on trial at the start of the season.

“He has knuckled down, played the most football he has played in a long time, and that’s credit to him and our staff for nurturing him the right way.

“Obviously, people keep saying it’s time for Billy to move on, but he just keeps proving everyone wrong. He just keeps scoring goals and pushing the team forward.”

Sheffield United: Henderson, Baldock, Basham, Egan, O’Connell, Stevens, Fleck, Norwood, Duffy (Stearman 76), Sharp (Dowell 86), McGoldrick (Madine 80). Unused substitutes: Lundstram, Hogan, Johnson, Moore.

Bolton Wanderers: Matthews, Lowe, Wheater, Hobbs, Taylor, Connolly, Connell, O’Neil, Vela (Magennis 69), Ameobi, Donaldson. Unused substitutes: Buckley, Noone, Murphy, Wilson, Williams, Grounds.

Referee: K Stroud (Hampshire).