If any Sheffield United supporters travelled to Stocksbridge Park Steels on Tuesday night expecting any cure for the disappoinment they are feeling following the sales of both Kyle Naughton and Kyle Walker, then it was in short supply.
United, perhaps wary of both Friday night’s Coca-Cola Championship curtain raiser against Middlesbrough and the fact Kevin Blackwell has one fit and available striker, elected to send a youthful and inexperienced XI for their traditional, annual pre-season game against local side Stocksbridge.
Was the next Kyle Naughton on display at Stocksbridge?
A year ago Naughton and Walker, who have since secured lucrative moves to the Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur, would have probably been amongst these squads as they bided their time, waiting for a first team opportunity.
For both, one came along last season and for both, it was seized upon.
Naughton, without doubt the most talked-about young player outside the Premier League last season, made an impression almost instantly and, almost after making his league debut, rumours circulated about a big-money move to a Premier League.
Such was the emergence of Kyle Walker a while later, Naughton was moved to left back to accomodate his 19-year-old namesake, and both youngsters played in the biggest games of their career to date – the Coca-Cola Championship final.
However, if any Blades made the short trip to the top of the Stocksbridge hill hoping to take heart from an encouraging display from the next generation of Blades, they would have been out of luck.
The majority of the squad, mostly aged 16 and 17, were playing their fifth game in fifth days after reaching the final of the Academy Milk Cup, eventually losing out to Manchester United, and looked devoid of any fight once Stocksbridge, newly promoted to the first division of the Unibond Premier, went ahead.
Impressive: Stocksbridge’s Jamie Vardy
The impressive Jamie Vardy, who has previously attracted admiring glances from Football League clubs, won a free-kick and Mark Ward, a former United academy player, floated in a cross-cum-shot which evaded everybody and settled in the back of Billard’s net on the stroke of half time.
The interval didn’t halt the progress of the hosts, however, who attacked United’s youngsters from the first whistle and doubled their lead fifteen minutes into the second half. A dangerous corner wasn’t cleared properly and the ball fell invitingly to Brett Lovell; who made no mistake from close range.
Ward and his new striking partner, recent signing Brian Cusworth, both went close – both rattling the bar with a free-kick and a header respectively – before the former staked an early claim for goal of the season with a stunning strike from 25 yards. Ward picked up the ball midway through United’s half before unleashing a rocket into the top corner, leaving Billard no chance. The boyhood Sheffield United fan promptly sealed his hat-trick from the penalty spot, after Vardy was again fouled.
“It is a bit of a balancing act at the moment,” United coach Mark Smith admitted.
“The second years need time on the pitch, whilst the first years have just come back from the Milk Cup.
“We lacked a little bit of intensity but it is another 90 minutes under the belt.”
Blades: Billard, Brown, Roe, Wilkinson (Murray 65), Maguire, Darlow, Lammy, James, Foster (Slew 65), Williams (Gregory 65), S-Latef.
Unused: Andrew, Kennedy.
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