IF there was any consolation to be had for Leeds United from Paul Heckingbottom’s bow as head coach ending in defeat it came via this being almost certainly the last time the club will face Billy Sharp this season.
In maintaining the Indian sign he has enjoyed over Leeds either side of a season-long stay at Elland Road in 2014-15, the Sheffield United captain inflicted a potentially fatal blow to his former club’s hopes of gatecrashing the play-offs.
His match-winning double, taking the 32-year-old’s tally against Leeds to seven goals from his last six starts in a variety of team colours, left Heckingbottom’s side eight points adrift of sixth place. It also extended their winless run to eight games.
Even allowing for the vast improvement in performance after half-time and the likes of Pierre-Michel Lasogga, Matthew Pennington and Pablo Hernandez catching the eye, the Elland Road outfit look some way off the quality needed to prevail amid the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a promotion race.
The Blades, in contrast, look to be firing once again after a mid-season wobble that saw 13 games yield just 10 points.
Sharp spent much of that period kicking his heels on the bench, this start against Leeds being only his second since Christmas. He took just 71 seconds to announce his return with a stunning acrobatic volley and then rounded off a fine afternoon with a penalty so fiercely struck that Felix Wiedwald barely saw the ball before it hit the back of the net.
“I have had spells like this before when not in the team,” said the striker to The Yorkshire Post. “You just have to get on with it, keep your head up – especially now I am captain. I have to keep the boys going.
“My dad, though, is the one who has kept me going the last few weeks. He texted in the morning to say I had five in five against Leeds and that he believed I would score. I felt the same.
“It was nice to get a text off him, it gives me confidence. My dad knows all about the stats – goals and wins, that sort of thing. If I have a good record, he texts me.”
As with the previous meeting between these two clubs at Elland Road in October, Sharp broke the deadlock early. Just 71 seconds had elapsed when Eunan O’Kane, in attempting to head clear a Mark Duffy cross, could only flick the ball towards the penalty spot and the unmarked Sharp.
He is a good manager, but I am just glad we beat his team and I was able to score. I am not bothered how they come, but I enjoyed the first oneSheffield United’s Billy Sharp
A striker who had been told on his first day at Leeds that he was too small by then owner Massimo Cellino did not need a second invitation, twisting in the air before unleashing a volley that flew beyond the helpless Wiedwald.
Sharp’s manic celebrations betrayed the relief at netting in the league for the first time since mid-November. It was also a welcome two fingers to the recent trend for players to mark scoring against a former employer with nothing but a trudge back to the halfway line.
“The celebrations were because I was really happy,” said Sharp. “I have had stick about scoring against former clubs in the past, but I celebrated against Sheffield United. My job is to score goals so when I score I am happy.”
It was the 200th league goal of his career. The 201st came after Leeds had drawn level with an exquisite header from Lasogga, substitute Hernandez providing the cross after dispossessing Jack O’Connell near the touchline.
That came three minutes into the second half and was the prelude to the best spell of the game for the visitors. Hernandez went close with a drilled shot that bounced just wide via a deflection, but the afternoon was destined to belong to Sharp.
A quickly taken free-kick by the excellent Duffy released John Fleck, who darted into the area before being tripped by O’Kane.
Referee Andrew Madley rightly pointed to the spot and Sharp did the rest to seal a victory that was deserved, not least because the hosts had spurned a host of good chances in a first half that was dominated by Chris Wilder’s men.
Leeds did press for a second equaliser, but Richard Stearman and Chris Basham were typically resolute to withstand the late rally and ensure Heckingbottom’s bow ended in defeat.
The former Barnsley chief will have learned plenty about his side, both good and bad. His task now is to bring order to a jumbled squad that lacks balance, a consequence of managerial reigns tending to be brief at Elland Road in recent years and much of the thinking being anything but joined up.
Swapping Thomas Christiansen, someone with no previous experience of English football either as a player or coach, for a man well schooled in the ways of the county is a big leap, but one that Sharp believes will serve his former club well.
“It is a good appointment for them,” said the striker, whose previous scoring streak against Leeds includes strikes for Doncaster Rovers and Nottingham Forest.
“He knows the league, having been at Barnsley a while. I am sure he will do well. Mind, I saw on the team sheet that Liam Cooper is the longest serving Leeds player. He signed the same day as me. It is mental.
“They have had ins and outs for the last three years. Far too many. But, hopefully, he gets a chance and will be all right.
“He is a good manager, but I am just glad we beat his team and I was able to score. I am not bothered how they come, but I enjoyed the first one; it reminded me of my 100th league goal for Doncaster against Leicester. That goal was for the lads.”