Boxing Day’s traditional offerings have brought out the very best in Sheffield United in recent times, with Chris Wilder’s third successive victory in charge of the Blades on this great sporting day proving as spicy and potent as a hearty serving of mulled wine.
Previous December 26 wins over Sunderland and Oldham may have been warming, but they will surely have not been as satisfying as the latest festive events at a pulsating Bramall Lane.
Everything that has been good about the Blades during Wilder’s rousing tenure was showcased in a relentless and masterful second-half show in which Derby – despite briefly drawing level thanks to a wonderful free-kick from Harry Wilson – simply could not cope.
The upshot is that United, like last year, find themselves sitting on 41 points after 24 matches and healthily positioned in the top six. On this evidence, they will not be going away any time soon.
After deflating home defeats to two upwardly-mobile rivals in the shape of West Brom and Leeds United, Wilder’s side displayed a strong jaw to floor another contender in Derby.
It was a victory of psychological merit, with the icing provided by the sight of big summer transfer target Martyn Waghorn being reminded of the scoreline by gleeful Unitedites moments after he entered the fray late on – shortly after Leon Clarke’s killer third.
A sobering occasion too for Rams chief Frank Lampard, whose touchline discussions with Blades rival Wilder were not exactly in the spirit of the season of goodwill in a heated second-half.
It was United who channelled their energy in rousing fashion in an emotionally-charged second half when they fed off the home supporters’ collective incredulity -–manifested shortly after Wilson’s fine 53rd-minute equaliser for the Rams.
It came moments after the Blades’ vehement claims for a penalty were ignored at the other end in front of a baying Kop when David McGoldrick went down under pressure from Fikayo Tomori – with home supporters venting their ire in no uncertain terms towards referee Geoff Eltringham.
But McGoldrick and his defiant team-mates got even, as opposed to mad – which will represent a source of pride to Wilder.
Derby afforded themselves a goal after just 17 seconds in the reverse fixture, but this time around, it was the Blades who flew out of the blocks.
A McGoldrick curler flew just wide, with Scott Carson then instinctively blocking a close-range effort from Billy Sharp following Enda Stevens’s smart header.
Quick in transition with pace to burn, Derby produced flashes of danger themselves.
Dean Henderson’s first serious work saw a shot on the angle from Mason Mount sting his palms, while a key saving challenge from Jack O’Connell denied Wilson.
Another alert defensive contribution thwarted the in-form Rams winger just after the hour mark following a moment of high-class from the visitors.
A superb pass from Tom Huddlestone picked out Wilson, who rounded the advancing Dean Henderson, only to see his angled effort blocked on the line by the covering George Baldock.
The greater conviction may have arrived from Derby as the first half wore on, but it was the hosts who applied the sting.
It arrived, not surprisingly, from home captain Sharp – whose 14th strike of the season silenced the Derby contingent who had wasted no time in barracking him during the first period.
The striker hoodwinked his marker to afford himself half a yard of space before deftly nodding home following an inviting cross from O’Connell.
After excelling himself to defy the Blades top-scorer earlier, Carson’s efforts ahead of the break were rather more open to rebuke and while Sharp’s downward header was well directed, the Derby custodian’s agility and technique looked suspect.
The powderkeg was then lit for a dramatic second half when Eltringham was unmoved after McGoldrick went down following Tomori’s challenge – just as the Blades striker was about to help the ball over the line after initially lobbing the ball over Carson.
That sense of injustice was compounded by Wilson’s stunning leveller which went in off the underside of the crossbar with Henderson rooted to his spot.
But United’s main men stood tall, with McGoldrick soon delicately lobbing the ball over the advancing Carson for an eye-catching seventh goal of the campaign.
Derby visibly wilted and Sharp went close twice before Leon Clarke applied the last rites with his header – which took a deflection off Jayden Bogle – just three minutes after coming on.
Sheffield United:0 Henderson; Basham, Egan, O’Connell; Baldock, Norwood, Fleck, Stevens; Duffy (Clarke 80), McGoldrick, Sharp. Unused substitutes: Coutts, Stearman, M Johnson, Moore, Cranie, Washington.
Derby County: Carson; Bogle, Keogh, Tomori, Wisdom (Waghorn 85); Huddlestone (Evans 70), Bryson, Mount; Jozefzoon (Nugent 69), Marriott, Wilson. Unused substitutes: Pearce, Evans, Roos, Holmes, Bird.
Referee: G Eltringham (Tyne and Wear).