Sheffield United 2 Derby County 1: Billy Sharp dines out at Derby's expense again

THE CONTRAST with the previous occasion that these rivals convened at Bramall Lane could not have been more stark.

Billy Sharp after his winning goal for Sheffield United against Derby County. Picture: Sportimage

It was on Boxing Day, 2018 when they last met in the Steel City for a Championship fixture of major significance in front of an enraptured festive crowd of just under 29,000.

The spoils went to Sheffield United, who moved up to fourth place following a 3-1 win, delivering the sort of rousing, irresistible performance that was commonplace for much of the Chris Wilder era.

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Promotion talk was inescapable and despite a setback for Derby; their star was also firmly in the ascendancy amid the season of goodwill.

Luke Freeman in action against Derby County. Picture: Sportimage.

How times have changed for both as they played out this cup appointment amid the backdrop of a meagre crowd heading towards the end of a summer which has been anything but smooth.

The Blades may not have been operating under the restrictions of a temporary transfer embargo like Derby, but incoming activity has still been problematic and the cause for much angst among supporters.

Fortunately, the sight of Billy Sharp - forever a hero in these parts - is rather more soothing.

Just six games into his Blades tenure, Slavisa Jokanovic will also know that full well. It will take time to build a side in his own image, but having a Sharp around will help.

After his 250th career goal at the weekend, an encore arrived when he was called from the bench in the final quarter.

Like all great goal poachers, Sharp knows the full importance of staying alive, which he did when a player at the opposite stage of his career in Derby teenager Kornell McDonald tried to pass the ball back to keeper Ryan Allsop.

His attempt lacked pace and Sharp - who netted in that aforesaid triumph over Derby - was onto it in a flash and rapidly rounded Allsop and scored the sort of goal he has forged his goal-laden career on. It was his fourth goal in three games against the Rams in Sheffield.

Earlier, McDonald had helped Derby's opener just before the break from Louie Sibley. A headed equaliser early in the second half from Luke Freeman - his first goal for the club - was a far more welcome, if surprise development. Sharp's decisive intervention was far more expected.

For Jokanovic, there will be a spot of understandable relief after a troubling start to the season.

An unsatisfactory first half would not have helped his mood either.

United switched their entire starting line-up from the game against Huddersfield Town, while Derby made eight changes. Four teenagers apiece strode out for each side and it was those in the sky blue of the visitors who displayed early fluidity and poise.

Two combined for a merited opener before the break when McDonald was given too much space down the right and after his cross was not cleared, Sibley pounced and buried a clinical low shot on the turn.

Stood watching the action unfold in suitably dark clothing, Jokanovic had much to ponder.

For the fifth successive match, United started with a different goalkeeper with an unconvincingly early save from Michael Verrips to gather Isaac Hutchinson’s tame shot at the second attempt not inspiring confidence.

Neither did some of United’s loose play in possession, with Jack Stretton profiting later on in the half but failing to significantly test Verrips when well placed and then being left to rue the presence of ex-Rams defender Jayden Bogle, who got in the way of his goalbound shot.

The goal that Derby merited eventually arrived with United’s best moment coming with Daniel Jebbison diverting the ball wide from close in after being set up by David McGoldrick, one of the few home players to show any semblances of wit or urgency.

Testament to Jokanovic’s unease with the interval replacement of a striker in Jebbison and the arrival of a senior midfielder in birthday boy John Fleck in a bid to wrestle back some control in the middle.

In the event, it was McGoldrick who played the cool hand when he slotted in Gordon, whose cross was dispatched by the head of Freeman, albeit with a bit of benevolence from Allsop, who did not cover himself in glory in his attempts to keep it out.

At the other end, Verrips made a point-blank save to thwart the heavily-involved Stretton before Gordon got back to the day job to make a brave saving block to deny a goal for Kamil Jozwiak before Lee Buchanan's deflected cross hit the post .

But the cavalry was sent for and it was left to Sharp to do what he does.

Sheffield United: Verrips; Gordon, Lopata, Robinson; Bogle, Brunt, Freeman, Osborn; McGoldrick (Ndiaye 61), Burke (Sharp 69), Jebbison (Fleck 45). Substitutes unused: Basham, Brewster, Foderingham, Norrington-Davies.

Derby County: Allsop; McDonald, Stearman, Forsyth, Williams; Watson, Hutchinson, Brown; Sibley, Stretton (Borkovic 66), Jozwiak (Buchanan 63). Substitutes unused: Byrne, Shinnie, Bird, Morrison, Roos.

Referee: A Backhouse (Cumbria).

Attendance: 7,976