Sheffield United: Results are brilliant but the Blades can still do lots of things better - such as these
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Probably a little too much for their former manager Slavisa Jokanovic’s liking. And although circumstances prevent him from saying so - good ones, not bad ones - almost certainly Paul Heckingbottom as well. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce he wanted to permanently sign a centre-half during last month’s transfer window. Or, having made representations to John Souttar when it became clear the Scotland international wanted to leave Heart of Midlothian, that the 44-year-old and his staff felt the necessary funding was there.
Either there was a policy shift or it wasn’t. Because they eventually brokered a temporary deal for Charlie Goode. He’s a mighty fine player and one who appears perfectly suited to United. But it was telling that, within hours of announcing Goode’s arrival from Brentford, Heckingbottom began dropping hints about the possibility of purchasing the 26-year-old at the end of the season. For the record, despite reading suggestions to the contrary, people in both South Yorkshire and west London insist there is no ‘right to buy’ clause in the Goode agreement.
Borrowing players, particularly when they’re being brought in to fill key positions, really isn’t ideal. Heckingbottom knows that. Everybody, if they’re being honest rather than peddling spin, knows that. The only people who don’t - and the 44-year-year definitely isn’t one of them, but more of that later - are those who think football clubs can succeed if they operate on a season by season basis. And admittedly, they can. If millions, even billions, are being lavished on the team.
Okay, so many of them will contain 12 month extensions which can be triggered at United’s behest. But with so many of their players approaching the end of their present contracts, it only adds to the sense of impending upheaval - particularly if Heckingbottom doesn’t take them up this term - that Morgan Gibbs-White, Ben Davis, Conor Hourihane and now Goode are also scheduled to leave this summer.
Still, temporary deals aren’t always a bad thing. A real difference-maker, United wouldn’t be able to afford a player of Gibbs-White’s quality on the open market. Hourihane, having admitted he’s already emotionally left Aston Villa, can be recruited on a free at the end of the campaign.
Heckingbottom is a strategist. Someone who likes to plan from the short, medium and long term. So I think it’s fair to say that the type of loans he will want to do in the future are the kind which cost United points at the beginning of Jokanovic’s reign.
Huddersfield Town, their opponents at the John Smith’s Stadium on Saturday, won when the two sides met earlier this term. Levi Colwill, one of two players Carlos Corberan’s employers have borrowed from Chelsea, scored the winning goal. Sources within the game tell me the defender doesn’t have to cost Town a penny. Why? Because they presented officials at Cobham with a development plan for the teenager. And rather than looking to make a few quid, Thomas Tuchel and his coaching staff simply wanted Colwill to play. So, after being impressed with the ideas Corberan put forward, they agreed to let him move for zilch. The only time Town will have to make a significant contribution towards his wages, so I’m led to believe, is if Colwill is available for selection but doesn’t get picked for - let’s say for the sake of argument - five or six games.
That is the way United must begin to use the loan system going forward. To embellish their squad. Not to help build its core.
Anyway, constructive criticism about United’s recruitment - or rather the recruitment staff there are allowed to do - shouldn’t disguise the fact that lots of good things are happening at the club right now.
Results are on the up - Wednesday’s win over West Bromwich Albion was their fourth in a row - and the support base, although many of them harbour concerns about the same things I do, feel energised by what they’re witnessing on the pitch.
Still, that doesn’t mean to say there isn’t room for improvement. Particularly when it comes to internal housekeeping, with far too many members of Heckingbottom’s squad poised to become free agents and still waiting to learn if they will be retained.
Some people, PR people, will try to tell you this is a good thing - providing United with the flexibility and breathing space to make sensible financial decisions. And to some extent that’s true. Although surely, if we can land robots on Mars, it isn’t beyond the wit of the people who run football clubs to address situations like this now. They’ll probably also claim it helps keep people hungry and focused at a pivotal stage of the campaign. Despite the fact this argument would seem to question the professionalism of those whose futures are, on the face of it, in doubt.
Even if Billy Sharp, who travels to West Yorkshire searching for his 13th goal of the campaign, discovered next week that he’s being cut loose - just for the record, I don’t think that’s going to happen - you know he’d still be determined to help take United up. The same goes for Chris Basham, David McGoldrick and Ben Osborn.
But when folk pretend those who are about to become free agents don’t mind not knowing if United plan to activate the retention clauses written into their present agreements, they should remember a sage piece of advice offered by someone who knows the industry towards the end of last season.
Then, after United’s relegation from the top-flight had been confirmed, the person in question warned that “uncertainty” seldom brings out the best in a sportsperson. Particularly when it casts a show over key issues like who where they might be competing and for whom.
In case anyone had forgotten, that was Heckingbottom during his spell in caretaker charge.