JUST AS SUNDAY was never likely to be ‘just another game’ for Sheffield United – as Chris Wilder put it in his programme notes – so last night’s occasion could not be accused of lacking importance to Leon Clarke.
Three days on from his clinical brace against former club Sheffield Wednesday, the striker provided a re-run to savour with a double which probably felt even more personally enriching as his efforts at Hillsborough.
The forward downed another ex-employer in the process and had the satisfaction of silencing the Wolves boo-boys in the away end just for good measure.
Just as manager Chris Wilder, captain Billy Sharp and thousands of Blades’ fans had their moment on Sunday, so Clarke emphatically had his against his hometown club, where he had spent two separate spells. His double helped lift Wilder’s side up to the giddy heights of second place, the Blades’s highest position since April 2009.
These are unquestionably heady days at the Lane.
Clarke may have dined out at his old clubs’ expense, but former Blades player Conor Coady had a much more bitter experience.
Coady, a player who Wilder was interested in signing in the summer, had been catching the eye after switching from his central midfield berth to central half.
But his game-turning episode on 15 minutes when he let Clarke get half a yard on him before instinctively pulling back his shirt as he was about to burst clear in a moment of blind panic showcased him as being a midfielder first and foremost and not a recognised centre-half, with the only option being a red card.
The game’s other big moment also benefitted the Blades, when their first-half lead remained intact after Wolves’s marquee £15.8m signing Ruben Neves showed that all that money does not quite buy everything.
The midfielder saw his penalty clip the outside of Jamal Blackman’s left-hand post six minutes after the break after Cameron Carter-Vickers was penalised for a foul on Diogo Jota.
Clarke’s double helped lift Wilder’s side up to the giddy heights of second place, the Blades’s highest position since April 2009.The YP’s Leon Wobschall
The Blades and Clarke did not ask questions after that second let-off with the big striker powerfully heading in his second shortly before the hour mark.
It was the prelude to a comfortable final half-hour as Wolves lost for the first time on their travels this season on a night when they could have drawn level with leaders Cardiff City.
For Wilder, this latest victory may have lacked the fanfare of Sunday’s or been greeted with quite the amount of unadultered joy from Blades fans, but it was no less significant as a Portuguese rival manager suffered more pain.
For a sagacious manager in Wilder, fears of an ‘After the Lord Mayor’s Show’ type occasion would have resonated with him.
He had stressed that Wolves would represent a “massive challenge”.
His side did not let him down.
On Wolves’s last visit to the Blades in March 2014, another expectant home crowd congregated to hail the Blades’s 125th anniversary with a host of United legends taking to the pitch.
Over three-and-a-half years on and those being feted in red and white represented the club’s present and future.
Early evidence suggested that Wolves, with the benefit of an extra days’ rest, would fully utilise the full width of the pitch to test endurance levels of the Blades.
But after Coady’s dismissal, it was the hosts who ended up stretching their numerically-disadvantaged rivals for most of the half.
After relentlessly piling on the pressure with a series of corners, Wolves eventually creaked with a goal that had been coming.
Enda Stevens’s pinpoint low left-wing cross dissected the Wolves defence to pick out Clarke, who slid the ball home.
After a bright start from Wolves, the game turned on Coady’s dismissal and pre-match concerns among the Wanderers faithful that their side were being presented with their stiffest test this season soon proved true.
Wolves, whose sole first-half chance saw Leo Bonatini fire weakly at Blackman following Carter-Vickers’s error, were forced to seriously man the barricades after losing Coady.
Just before his dismissal, John Ruddy palmed away Jack O’Connell’s header before showing his agility to turn away John Fleck’s rasping free-kick immediately after as the hosts scented blood. Clarke eventually struck in front of the away contingent, who were similarly aghast after Neves’ spenalty miss.
The Blades soon made the game safe when Clarke powerfully headed in a free-kick from substitute Mark Duffy, who almost added a late third. Happy days.
Sheffield United: Blackman, Carter-Vickers, Wright (Duffy 56), O’Connell, Baldock, Basham, Coutts, Fleck, Stevens (Lafferty 46), Brooks, Clarke (Evans 79). Unused substitutes: Moore, Lundstram, Sharp, Carruthers.
Wolves: Ruddy, Batth, Coady, Roderick Miranda, Doherty, N’Diaye, Neves (Ivan Cavaleiro 64), Douglas, Helder Costa (Saiss 20), Leo Bonatini (Enobakhare 46), Jota. Unused substitutes: Marshall, Price, Ruben Vinagre, Norris.
Referee: Peter Bankes (Merseyside).