WITH A definite nip in the Sheffield air indicating winter is on the way, the scene seemed set for Leon Clarke.
It was just after the big coats had been dug out of the wardrobe last year that the Sheffield United striker’s season exploded into life.
But, amid the disappointment of missing out on returning to the summit as Middlesbrough were held at home by Rotherham United, Clarke’s return to goalscoring form was a major plus.Richard Sutcliffe
November brought an incredible nine goals in just four appearances for Clarke, who up to that point had managed to find the net just 13 times in 15 months as a Blade.
It was a hot scoring streak that ultimately took the much-travelled striker – United are his 17th club – to within touching distance of the Championship Golden Boot come the end of the season.
He netted 19 times in all, a tally eclipsed only by Matej Vydra and Lewis Grabban in the second tier.
Last night’s strike against Stoke City was his first of this term at the 14th attempt. It wasn’t enough to secure all three points, Joe Allen’s neatly-taken free-kick with just three minutes remaining denying the Blades the victory their performance had richly deserved.
But, amid the disappointment of missing out on returning to the summit as Middlesbrough were held at home by Rotherham United, Clarke’s return to goalscoring form was a major plus.
Not least because, judging by last season, Clarke’s goals tend to come in clusters and United could certainly do with a lift in terms of adding a cutting edge to their hugely impressive approach play.
Chris Wilder’s side dominated against a Stoke team who started the season as the clear favourites to win promotion following Gary Rowett’s arrival in the summer and a lavish spending spree that included paying £10m to Huddersfield Town for Tom Ince.
Rowett was forced to watch last night’s clash from the TV gantry, the Potters chief having been hit with a one-game touchline ban by the FA during the afternoon. He had been accused of using abusive/improper language after being sent to the stands by referee Roger East during Saturday’s defeat to Birmingham City.
Rowett could surely have been forgiven for turning the air blue in the Steel City, too. His ire this time, though, will surely have been aimed at his players.
Stoke, for all their Premier League pedigree, were made to look distinctly average by a United side who really should have been out of sight long before Allen’s late, late leveller.
That the hosts weren’t owed as much to their own profligacy as it did Jack Butland in the Stoke goal.
He twice saved from David McGoldrick in the first half and then followed this with another smart stop to deny the excellent Mark Duffy after the restart.
United finally made the breakthrough 20 minutes from time, a curled free-kick from Oliver Norwood beating Butland but not the post.
Clarke was the first to react, his first time shot thundering into the net to prompt joyous scenes among the home fans in the 24,463 crowd.
With leaders Middlesbrough struggling to find a way past the Millers at the Riverside, top spot beckoned and few could surely begrudge the hosts on the strength of their showing.
The first half had followed a familiar pattern of the Blades dominating but being unable to capitalise.
It wasn’t for the want of trying, with McGoldrick desperately unfortunate to come up against Butland in such fine form.
First, his header from John Fleck’s deep searching cross clawed to safety by the England goalkeeper.
Then, after McGoldrick had cut inside smartly, Butland got down low to his left to push the ball round his post. Other chances came and went for United, though this time it was their own profligacy that was the problem as Kieron Freeman and Clarke wasted glorious openings at the start and end of the first half.
United continued to press after the restart as Duffy was crowded out by Butland and Ashley Williams at the near post following a lovely move involving Chris Basham, Freeman and Clarke.
Then came Clarke’s breakthrough and that seemed to be that until Allen curled his free-kick round the wall and inside Dean Henderson’s post.
Even allowing for James McClean having earlier headed over from close range and the veteran former England striker Peter Crouch wasting a gilt-edged opportunity, Allen’s late leveller was harsh on a Blades side who will surely play much worse than this and take all three points this season.
Sheffield United: Henderson; Basham, Egan, O’Connell; Freeman (Coutts 90), Fleck, Norwood, Duffy (Stearman 86). Stevens; McGoldrick (Washington 86), Clarke. Unused substitutes: M Johnson, Moore, Cranie, Sharp.
Stoke City: Butland; Martina (Edwards 81), Williams, Martins Indi, Pieters (Bojan 81); Allen, Woods; Ince, Berahino (Crouch 66), McClean; Afobe.Unused substitutes: Adam, Shawcross, Fletcher, Federici.
Referee: G Ward (Surrey).