The Blades started 2021-22 weighed down by baggage, good players struggling to overcome a chastening relegation. August was miserable. When they played badly they lost and when they played well they still found ways to drop points.
Clues as to how to get out of it were there. In May, Daniel Jebbison became the youngest player to score on his Premier League debut. He was loaned to Burton Albion by a club fearful of asking too much of him too soon.
The Blades won some matches in August, but only in the League Cup when the team was dominated by youngsters with clean minds. It was obvious fresh faces were needed but Ben Davies, injured on Saturday, was the only signing until deadline day. Not that they had to come from outside. Rhys Norrington-Davies was the only youngster handed a league debut.
Saturday’s XI was hardly revolutionary, but the effect was. Of the three deadline-day signings, Robin Olsen was in quarantine, Conor Hourihane not introduced until the game was won and only Morgan Gibbs-White started. But add a first start for 21-year-old Iliman Ndiaye and the chemistry between them sparked something which spread quickly.
As Ndiaye scored two goals and made one and Gibbs-White scored one and made one, established figures were inspired.
In playing terms, there is no bigger part of the Bramall Lane furniture than Billy Sharp but feeding off Ndiaye and Gibbs-White’s balls into the channels he contributed three assists. Ben Osborn passed beautifully from the left wing and chipped in with two goals. John Fleck scored for the first time since coronavirus was just an emerging concern for a far-off part of the world.
Ndiaye played in the hole of Jokanovic’s favoured 4-2-3-1 but got everywhere.
The first goal started with him moving left when he saw Osborn injured, often he went right as Gibbs-White – a No 10 by nature doing a job because the club was unable to sign any wingers – drifted. In the first half he was at the byline in front of the Kop blocking a Posh cross.
No wonder when he landed after scoring a 70th-minute header he had cramp in both legs. “I forgot I’d scored,” he claimed. Gibbs-White even assisted him then.
If his body felt the strain in the end, his mind never did.
“I was ready,” said a player tipped off on Friday but only told he was playing the next morning.
“I was excited. That’s what I was waiting for.”
Cliches about the fearlessness of youth are cliches for a reason. The one about an existing player being “like a new signing” felt most pertinent.
Born in France and having spent time in Senegal before following his dad to England where he played in Boreham Wood’s academy, he joined Sheffield United two years ago but was kept at arm’s length from the XI until signing a new contract last week.
If clean minds was all it took, most of us could improve the Blades but the self-proclaimed “dribbler with skills and all that” has footballing intelligence and – largely thanks to under-23 coach Paul Heckingbottom, he says – discipline.
Crucially, he also struck up an on-field rapport with Gibbs-White in a week-and-a-half on the Shirecliffe training pitches.
“We tried different things in training,” said Jokanovic. “They looked a good combination.
“I’ve spoken to the coaches who’ve worked with (Ndiaye) in the academy and they had a positive opinion about him so why not? He’s a guy who I believed could bring me what I missed so I tried him.”
Osborn was already passing well, Norrington-Davies had already put a dangerous cross in, Sharp was already making good runs, Ndiaye already inventive, Gibbs-White already silky, the crowd already buzzing when the full debutants combined in the 14th minute, Gibbs-White taking a sweeping Norrington-Davies pass beautifully and laying it back for Ndiaye to score.
The football continued to thrill but in the 40th minute came a potential turning point, Jack Robinson caught dwelling on the ball by Jack Marriott, a striker with plenty of Blades fans in his family who had a dismal loan at Sheffield Wednesday last season. He smashed an equaliser.
Norrington-Davies was caught but not punished and Wes Foderingham started the second half with a crucial double save from Marriott but the Blades’ attacking confidence was unharmed, twice scoring two in three minutes.
A penalty converted by Jonson Clarke-Harris when John Egan tried to tackle him from the wrong side was a reminder there is more to do, but good results snowball as easily as bad ones.
The point is the deep clean so badly needed at Bramall Lane is now underway and now, at last, is their season.