James Shield

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THEY are the players every manager craves but only a select few can ever retain or even afford.

Creative midfielders are, as Sheffield United discovered to their cost during the Steel City derby, capable not only of forging opportunities for others but also dictating tempo and direction.

Kevin McDonald, also missing the midweek win over Scunthorpe, proved a costly absentee at Hillsborough.

Had a hamstring injury not prevented him from being at Danny Wilson’s disposal, and while the final result might not have changed, it is unlikely that United would have found themselves being sucked into the type of dog-fight which undoubtedly suited Sheffield Wednesday’s more robust methods better.

An assessment which is not, despite what some have bizarrely claimed during the aftermath of United’s defeat at Hillsborough, a sign of bias. Merely an accurate assessment of the contrasting styles adopted by these two great rivals. And with which, surely, not even Gary Megson would beg to differ.

As the League One table suggests, United are more than a one-man team.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that McDonald is a vitally important cog in what is usually a very well-oiled machine.

But just how important is the former Scotland Under-21 international who, given the economics of the British game, would surely not have found himself without a club this summer were it not for some doubts about his attitude and character?

(Which, it must be said, have subsequently been disproved).

Statistically speaking, it seems not as important as might seem.

United, before the visit of Alan Knill’s side, had won 60 per cent of their matches this season.

They boasted a 63 per cent success rate whenever McDonald has featured in the team. Curiously, 64 per cent when he has not.

Neither is McDonald, despite his sumptuous repertoire, United’s most prolific provider of assists.

Again, an analysis of their record (before Scunthorpe) showed he was responsible for creating seven per cent of their goals compared to the often criminally under-appreciated Stephen Quinn who could lay claim to a whopping 19 per cent.

But while United have demonstrated they can win without McDonald, he remains a huge loss.

Not least because of the type of challenges the South Yorkshire club are likely to face between now and the end of a campaign.

Opponents who, not so long ago would look to attack Wilson’s men, are now tempted to park the bus as they look to claim a precious point in their battle for a top-six spot or even survival.

And McDonald is United’s go-to man when it comes to plotting a route through a congested defence.

His absence should not change their ability to win games. But it certainly does guarantee they will have to work much, much harder to achieve the desired result.