He's "bright and bubbly" - but Sheffield United must find a way to get the best out of Rhian Brewster
Paul Heckingbottom says that Rhian Brewster will be the first to admit that his big-money move from Liverpool to Sheffield United has not worked out as well as the young striker would have hoped – yet.
Brewster became the most expensive signing in United’s long history last year, when he arrived in a deal that could have risen to as much as £23.5million.
But the England U21 striker has failed to hit the target for his new club yet, and also suffered another blank international break in front of goal for England U21s too.
A consolation in Swansea’s play-off semi-final defeat to Brentford back in July remains his last competitive goal, but it is a level he looks like he will be operating at again next season when United’s inevitable relegation is confirmed.
The hope, from United’s point of view and probably from the player’s, too, is that he finds his feet in the Championship and carries on the form that arguably earned his move to United, scoring 11 times in 22 appearances to fire Swansea into the top six.
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“Rhian did great at Swansea, earned his move and he'll be the first to say it's not worked out as well as he would have hoped,” Heckingbottom said.
“But he understands that and the league. He's been at big clubs and understands how tough it is, and what top players do and how hard they work.
“The sacrifices they have to make to get in the team and be a top player.
“If he approaches things right, and we keep pushing him on these details and makes sure he understands that it's only hard work that'll get him to the top, then he'll come back stronger for it.”
Heckingbottom admits he has seen no signs of Brewster’s head dropping since he started working with United’s first team last month, when Chris Wilder – the man who brought Brewster to Bramall Lane – left by mutual consent.
But this is not the way anyone involved in the deal would have envisaged it working out and since Brewster left Liverpool in October, United have won four Premier League games. The striker was also part of the England U21 squad that failed to progress out of the group stages for this summer’s European Championships and if his confidence had taken a hit, then surely no-one could fail to understand why.
At the same time, though, there have been glimpses to the contrary. Brewster was involved off the bench on Sunday as United lost 3-0 to Arsenal, and was left feeding off scraps for the most part. His only sight of goal was a shot from around 30 yards that was blocked by Rob Holding, but there was no taking of the easy option here.
The turning point almost came at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup, when United lost 2-0 to Chelsea despite a much-improved second half display that gave many fans the optimism that a corner may just be being turned.
United were 1-0 down in the 91st minute when Brewster latched onto a blocked effort and smashed a shot towards the bottom corner, which was deflected narrowly wide. The youngster, back at his former club, held his head in his hands and looked skywards.
“I wish that chance had gone in,” Heckingbottom added. “Not just for the team but for Rhian as well, because he was really sharp when he came on.
“Just when we were getting our teeth into him, we lost him for 10 days [on international duty]. It's important that he understands that he's back with us now, we have these games remaining and the younger players have to step up and stake a claim.
“I don't pick a team on name, on age or anything that's gone on before. It's who deserves to play. And one thing I really like about Rhian is that he does have an eye for a goal and he gets shots off, but he's got to earn and understand the other parts of the game that will get him minutes on the pitch.
“And then what I believe are his outstanding qualities can set him apart.”
Probably the standout goal on Brewster’s highlights reel for Swansea came at the Madejski Stadium, where he scored a ridiculous goal from around 40 yards in a 4-1 victory.
Three of his 11 goals for the Swans came from outside the box – which is where the confidence to let fly from long range comes from – but United will want him to be more involved in the penalty area.
In 22 Premier League games this season, Brewster has had 18 touches inside the opposition area. In 22 Championship games last time out, that number was 48.
The statistics are skewed by the fact that Brewster’s 22 Premier League games for United total 996 minutes, compared to his 1,983 minutes in 22 league games for Swansea, but the discrepancy is both clear and understandable. In the Premier League, chances – as United have found out to their cost this season – really are at a premium. In the league below, Brewster will have the time, space and, United hope, the confidence to thrive and hopefully fire them back up, ideally at the first attempt.
“Rhian is a bright character. He's bubbly and I really like his energy,” Heckingbottom said.
“You can have good conversations about him, about football or anything, and he's got a smile on his face.
“I love the phrase 'you're only as good as your strikers' for lots of reasons.
“We haven't, as a club, been able to nail those partnerships this season. It's there for everyone to see. So it's a key thing in our thinking going forward.”