Sheffield United: History teaches The Blades that tinkering can help deliver promotion

Paul Heckingbottom has immersed himself in all things Sheffield United since arriving at Bramall Lane, undertaking crash courses in the club’s personality, politics and of course its history as he first attempted to become a more effective development coach and then, following November’s changing of the guard, first team manager.

Friday, 18th February 2022, 3:30 pm

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So he will be familiar with the story of how, nearly a decade ago, a push for promotion was hijacked by off the pitch events which eventually condemned his employers to an agonising defeat in the play-off final. Although the faces have changed and the circumstances are very different, events towards the end of the 2011/12 League One season provide some clues about the benefits Heckingbottom hopes to derive from a bold selection policy which has seen two of his most influential midfielders and even his leading goalscorer rested in recent days.


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No one at United will care to be reminded of what happened back then, when a campaign which appeared destined in promotion delivered nothing but gut-wrenching disappointment. Arch-rivals Sheffield Wednesday eventually pipped them to second place and after edging past Stevenage to reach Wembley, Danny Wilson’s squad were beaten by Huddersfield Town on penalties.

But studying the reasons behind United’s failure that term isn’t simply an exercise in self-flagellation. It reveals, despite admitting that picking a team “isn’t an exact science”, why Heckingbottom’s tinkering isn’t simply designed to try and prevent injuries from happening. Utilising all of the options at his disposal, particularly at such a critical stage of the season, represents an insurance policy against unexpected absences as well.

“Everyone needs to be ready,” has become something of a mantra for Heckingbottom in recent weeks as United, eighth in the table ahead of tomorrow’s game against Swansea City, try and negotiate safe passage through a particularly busy period on their fixture calendar. Although back to back to back draws with Town and Hull City have stalled some of the momentum they built up following victories over Luton, Peterborough, Birmingham and West Bromwich Albion, the fact United are approaching this assignment unbeaten in seven suggests they are.


Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom has rotated his squad in recent weeks: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

But 10 years ago, when Ched Evans’ legal issues robbed them of the Wales international’s services, that definitely wasn’t the case. The rest of their strikers were under-used and under-cooked. Something which became evident during a damaging defeat at MK Dons, which not only ended a run of six straight wins but also swung the race for automatic in Wednesday’s favour.

Twenty-four hours before that match, Evans, who had scored 35 goals in his previous 42 appearances, was jailed for rape - a conviction which was later quashed by the Court of Appeal before he was found not-guilty following a retrial in 2016.

Football wasn’t the biggest issue back then, as Wilson reminded on countless occasions with commendable diplomacy and tact. But the loss of Evans didn’t just have a psychological effect upon his friends and colleagues in the dressing room - who, as those of us there at the time can testify, looked utterly shell-shocked as they filed off the bus in Buckinghamshire. It left them overly reliant upon James Beattie - an exceptional striker in his day, but who made only two starts that season - and Richard Cresswell. He was rushed back from a knock because the alternatives - Michael O’Halloran and Chris Porter - were either short of game-time or, in the latter’s case, prolific form.


Paul Heckingbottom speaks with Oli McBurnie: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

On reflection, and viewing things purely through the prism of sport, Wilson might have chosen to try and get them up to speed when Evans’ availability going forward was suddenly thrown into doubt. But then again, how could he leave the former Manchester City and marksman out given the fact he only had to look at a ball for it to end up in the back of the net?

Scroll forward 118 months and Heckingbottom, with Billy Sharp, Oli McBurnie, Iliman Ndiaye and Daniel Jebbison all available for selection, has much more flexibility. Sharp, now 36, remains United’s go-to striker after hitting the target 12 times in his last 33 outings. But given the workload being placed upon United’s shoulders - next week’s clash with Blackburn Rovers will be their sixth contest in 19 days - Heckingbottom knows there is a very real possibility Rhian Brewster and David McGoldrick might not be the only players he loses to fitness issues between now and May. So it makes sense to change personnel, depending upon the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. Not only to try and avoid fatigue. But also, if that does creep in or suspensions begin to bite, to ensure those drafted in have enough minutes under their belts to do themselves and United justice at such a critical juncture.


“Billy has earnt the right to be my first choice,” Heckingbottom said on Thursday, having named him on the bench when Hull travelled to South Yorkshire two days earlier. “But we need everyone else to be ready as well. We want people to get past Bill’s standards, so then he has to start chasing them. I think that would be the ideal scenario to be in.”

Billy Sharp of Sheffield United has a shot on goal against Hull City: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

Sharp is likely to return to the starting eleven which faces Swansea, with Ndiaye, Jebbison and McBurnie vying to partner him. McBurnie, now recovered from bouts of Covid-19 and tonsillitis, remains short of goals since the beginning of last term. But his conditioning levels will have been boosted by his recent outings and maybe, after two combative shifts, his confidence too. Which, with Heckingbottom clearly unsure if the teenage Jebbison is ready to spearhead the attack on a regular basis after returning on loan from Burton Albion, could prove crucial as they attempt to hunt down the top six.

History has taught United that juggling personnel is not always a bad thing.