Injury influencing Sheffield United selections as striker's predicament appears worse than initially reported

Despite volunteering to play through the pain barrier after being diagnosed with a hernia, uncertainty about how Oli McBurnie will react to the course of treatment he has been prescribed before undergoing surgery next month is influencing Sheffield United’s tactical choices during games according to manager Paul Heckingbottom.
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After telling The Star that McBurnie will remain available for selection until he enters hospital during the World Cup break, Heckingbottom initially insisted the centre-forward would be “pushed even harder” after the cause of the discomfort which has been troubling him in recent weeks was diagnosed.

But speaking ahead of Saturday’s game against Norwich City, a match both clubs hope will mark the end of their recent disappointing form, Heckingbottom acknowledged McBurnie’s situation is more delicate than first reported. Reflecting on his selections and substitutions during Wednesday’s defeat by Coventry City, United’s third loss in five outings since, the 44-year-old confessed he feels compelled to ensure captain Billy Sharp gets “minutes” in case McBurnie does break down.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom is having to handle Oli McBurnie with care: Darren Staples / SportimageSheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom is having to handle Oli McBurnie with care: Darren Staples / Sportimage
Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom is having to handle Oli McBurnie with care: Darren Staples / Sportimage
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Explaining why McBurnie completed the game at the CBS Arena, less than a week after he insisted that doing so would risk aggravating the Scotland international’s condition, Heckingbottom said: “We were looking at Oli from 70 to 75 minutes. But then he was getting changes to get in behind. So what do we do? Do we change things? Do we out Rhian (Brewster) and Bill on? Oli only joined in training on Thursday and Friday before our last match (Saturday’s draw with Blackpool).”

Sharp was introduced during the closing stages of United’s meeting with Coventry, replacing Chris Basham after the defender had conceded the penalty which Martyn Waghorn converted to seal the hosts’ victory. The result lifted Mark Robins’ side off the bottom of the table while United, three points clear of second place a month ago, finished the latest round of fixtures in fourth.

“But we need to give Bill minutes because we don’t know how Oli is going to react before the op,” Heckingbottom added. “The front two who started (at Coventry) were giving us a platform - Oli and Iliman (Ndiaye). But that’s something we need to keep in mind as well.”

Oli McBurnie reacts at the end of the Sky Bet Championship between Coventry City and Sheffield United at The Coventry Building Society Arena: Catherine Ivill/Getty ImagesOli McBurnie reacts at the end of the Sky Bet Championship between Coventry City and Sheffield United at The Coventry Building Society Arena: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Oli McBurnie reacts at the end of the Sky Bet Championship between Coventry City and Sheffield United at The Coventry Building Society Arena: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

McBurnie’s fitness issue, which places even greater stress on a squad already missing the likes of Jayden Bogle, Enda Stevens, Max Lowe and Sander Berge, threatens to deal a major blow to United’s hopes of quickly addressing their recent downturn in results. The Scotland international had scored five goals in only six outings after finding the back of the net when Birmingham City visited South Yorkshire earlier this month. He has now gone three matches without a goal while Berge’s absence appears to have left McBurnie’s strike partner, Iliman Ndiaye, a more isolated figure in attack as United reorganise their midfield to cope without the Norwegian midfielder.

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Rhian Brewster, on target against Stoke City, and Reda Khadra are also pressing for recalls to the starting eleven. However, Heckingbottom’s comment about Sharp suggests he is first in line to feature should McBurnie drop out against a Norwich team which, despite occupying the second automatic promotion berth only a month ago, is now sixth after suffering three back to back defeats.