James Shield's Sheffield United Column: How Ben Woodburn has left his mark on Bramall Lane
The more Chris Wilder prevaricates, the more he games he misses for Sheffield United and the more he plays for hisÂ parent club in the Professional Development League, the more it becomes apparent that Ben Woodburn, barring aÂ dramatic change of fortune, will probably return to Liverpool next month. Â
The Wales international, capped nine times by his country despite still being 10 months short of his 20th birthday,Â arrived at Bramall Lane amid great excitement and fanfare. But, after playing less than five hours of senior footballÂ since August, now finds himself out of favour, out of football and seemingly out of chances, in South Yorkshire atÂ least, to try and plot a route back. Indeed, were it not for the questions Wilder faces about Woodburn's predicamentÂ during nearly every pre-match media conference, he would surely have become the forgotten man of United's firstÂ team squad.
Still, signing him has still served a purpose. Just not in the way we were led to expect.
Discussing Woodburn has been understandably awkward for Wilder and, as he attempts to preserve United'sÂ relationship with the Premier League club, tested his power's of diplomacy too. But he did acknowledge the 19-year-old's presence has probably eked even greater levels of performance out of Mark Duffy.
"Everybody is looking for an angle and I get it," Wilder said. "Why isn't he playing? Why isn't he in? Anyone whoÂ has seen Duffy over the past three months will agree he's in the form of his life. He's took it to another level. Is itÂ because Ben is behind him? Possibly so. He's just a really good footballer."
Although Woodburn's loan has undoubtedly been a disappointment, for both United and the player himself, what hasÂ gnawed away at Wilder more is some of the narrative surrounding his predicament.Â
"I'm not here to facilitate Liverpool," he recently admitted. "Do you know, it does annoy me. People look at the HarryÂ Wilson scenario, where he's gone from Liverpool to Derby, and say 'What a brilliant club for him to go to. They'veÂ given him an opportunity to play.' Well, I've given Ben an opportunity to play. No player here is never not given anÂ opportunity to play."
In one sense, Liverpool will be happy with how Woodburn's move has turned out because it will have revealed plentyÂ about his character. But in another, they will be terribly frustrated. Not that keeping Jurgen Klopp sweet should be anyÂ concern of Wilder's. The German has been in football long enough to know that, despite what some folk might tell you,Â it is not an exact science. After all, had Mohammed Salah shone at Chelsea, he would not have scored 40 odd goals forÂ Klopp last term.
"Without chucking the boy under the bus, he might have to look at himself a little bit because perhaps he's not hit theÂ heights," Wilder continued, warming to the theme. "But it does nip at you. Because it wasn't the case with Chelsea orÂ Tottenham (Hotspur) when we took Jamal Blackman or Cam (Carter-Vickers). It wasn't the case with ManchesterÂ United after we took Dean (Henderson) from them or Joe Riley before him.
"It's happened to many people before and it doesn't mean Ben has got a bright future. Possibly the biggest oneÂ happened five miles down the road with Jamie Vardy at Stocksbridge. To go on and win titles, play for his country andÂ score the goals that he has, some people will be wondering why, when he was on their doorstep, didn't they take him."
There are, however, lessons to be learnt. For both United and their counterparts at Anfield, where officials insertÂ financial penalty clauses into every contract whenever a player is loaned out. Had those not existed then maybe, justÂ maybe, Wilder would have been more inclined to persevere.
From United's perspective, their experience with Woodburn is likely to influence the manager's transfer policy duringÂ next month's window. Although temporary agreements with top-flight clubs are likely to represent the bulk of his work,Â one suspects all of the names set come come under consideration will already have completed spells with other clubs.Â Woodburn, for a whole host of reasons, has clearly found it difficult to adjust. One of those is likely to be theÂ combination of new surroundings, new colleagues and new tactics; a potentially overwhelming cocktail for even aÂ seasoned professional, let alone one still making their way in the game.
But, by influencing their recruitment strategy, Woodburn has at least created some sort of legacy at United. Even if itÂ not the one he Wilder or Klopp really wanted.Â