Because the Blades are on a roll at the moment – unbeaten in seven matches if you just look at the football and not penalty shout-outs – and the world is against the Rams, only the hosts got rewarded for it. They had won 1-0 without playing well, which matters when you have ambitions to win promotion.
An afternoon loaded with backstories – Derby’s first match since their 12-point deduction for going into administration, Phil Jagielka 700th career appearance but his first at Bramall Lane as an away player, the battle of the Baldocks between brothers George and Sam, Ravel Morrison’s return to S2 to name a few – was lacking a gripping frontstory until an explosive finish saw the Blades awarded an 89th-minute penalty thumped home by Billy Sharp, who had missed from 12 yards seven days earlier.
Then a twist as Tom Lawrence went through to score the third stoppage-time goal United had conceded at home this season. Robin Olsen tipped it onto his post to claim his first clean sheet for the club.
It was harsh on Derby, who hit the crossbar through Jagielka in the first half and showed huge determination to keep the hosts at bay after goalkeeper Kelle Roos was rightly red-carded for bringing Sharp down outside the area in the 58th minute.
The siege which followed was predictable, Jokanovic throwing on a second striker, Oli McBurnie, for a holding midfielder, Oliver Norwood, and later the guile of Conor Hourihane, who ultimately created the goal.
But until Sharp thumped his penalty down the middle then “shushed” the away fans who had been signing some disgraceful songs about him, it had felt like it was just not going to happen.
The Blades made the running throughout.
Sharp’s 11th-minute touch to take down Baldock’s lofted pass was sublime but his shot was anything but. As the half-hour approached his header from a wonderful cross by the clearly inspired right-back was way off target. Falling backwards he would also head wide at a corner.
A lesser striker would have lost heart.
Seemingly unable to score it, Sharp ought to have made the opening goal from the first half’s last act, running into the channel after Ben Osborn switched from fancy stepovers to a cutting pass, but Iliman Ndiaye’s header ricocheted anywhere but the goal.
Sharp and Ndiaye were not the only ones suffering. In the space of a couple of minutes another inspiration behind their recent form, Morgan Gibbs-White, lost possession to set up a failed Rams raid, broke down a potential Blades counter-attack with a heavy touch and overhit a pass to Baldock. His frustration got the better of him when he was booked for his angry reaction to a foul where he thought he was the sinned against, not the sinner.
And whilst there were other Blades chances, Jagielka’s header against the bar and Sam Baldock’s snapshot just wide after Lawrence had a shot blocked were better than any of them.
George Baldock almost released Sharp in the 53rd minute simply by putting his foot through the ball. When Norwood did five minutes later with a much more cultured outside-of-the-boot pass, Roos came second in the race and brought Sharp down.
When Osborn put the ball into the net seconds after the whistle blew, you could see the hard-luck story forming. Once Roos dragged himself off the field Gibbs-White dinked the free-kick into the jumping wall.
At that point Derby really ought to have done the decent thing and crumbled but they are made of sterner stuff and it was the Blades’ sob stories that continued, not that it was all down to misfortune. Ndiaye’s header five yards wide from only six yards out was the worst crime against finishing.
But eventually Curtis Davies gave them a hand, seemingly thinking as Hourihane crossed that he was playing fly keeper, and tipping it away.
Jokanovic could be critical of his team’s game management, highlighting how their failure to keep the ball for the last six minutes nearly saw it go the way of the matches against Preston North End and Huddersfield Town, but his recent complaints have come from a position of strength. One thing he could not cry about was his team’s bottle.
“In some moments I complained about body-shape, attitude and trust but on the other side there is Billy Sharp,” said Jokanovic proudly.
“This is an important signal, that I have people with strong personalities.
“Mentally this game was important for us and (showed) we don’t need to give up before the 96th, 97th minute.
“We are progressing, it’s simple. We need to change the mentality, the competitiveness. It’s different tactics. We need to be aggressive and always look to be in the game.”
This Sheffield United team is far from perfect but having started the season looking sorry for itself, now it looks to have rediscovered the fighting spirit which was its trademark for so long.
Derby can testify that can only take you so far but teams will struggle to get anywhere without it.