Sheffield United: Response to Oli McBurnie's miss tells you all you need to know about fans

How many times do you hear someone say it? That football supporters are hard to please.

Thursday, 17th February 2022, 5:00 pm

Even if the answer is only rarely, that’s still far too often for my liking. Because it's nonsense. Rubbish, usually spouted by someone with an over-inflated sense of their own importance. Who presumes they either have the right to speak on behalf of an entire fanbase. Or believes talking about XG’s, PPDA’s and possession sequences over a pre-match sherbert automatically turns them into an intellectual behemoth - the next Gusztav Sebes or Rinus Michels. (Just for the record, it doesn’t).

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Yes, different clubs have different personalities. They mean different things to different people.

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But when it comes to players - and admittedly I’m running the risk of ruining my entire argument by saying this - I don’t think those of us who follow the beautiful game are particularly demanding.

An incident during Sheffield United’s game against Hull City in midweek lends weight to that argument.

Oli McBurnie, who I think it’s fair to say still has his fair share of doubters at Bramall Lane, received a great round of applause towards the end of a first-half which, thanks to the visitors’ organisation and gameplan, had become a test of patience as well as skill.

He hadn’t put the ball in the back of the net. But what McBurnie had done was bust a gut to get on the end of the cross Oliver Norwood had swept towards Matt Ingram’s far post - flinging himself at it headfirst, missile-like and, given the proximity of the advertising hoardings, potentially at great personal cost.

Oli McBurnie's effort here was appreciated by the Sheffield United fans at Bramall Lane for their team's game against Hull City: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

The applause, as McBurnie clambered back to his feet, spoke volumes. If players put it all in, are seen to be giving everything for whichever team folk inside the stadium are following, they’ll be forgiven for a lot. Including scoring only once since September. Which doesn’t suggest most of those who witnessed the meeting with Shota Arveladze’s side are particularly picky.

I’ve spoken before about McBurnie’s difficulties as he seeks to establish himself at United. In my opinion, the fact most of those who will be cheering on his former employers Swansea City in South Yorkshire this weekend would laugh at the suggestion he is a targetman - or even some sort of hybrid - is the root cause of the problem.

I get why McBurnie was asked to perform that role. Particularly when United were in the Premier League. Remember the impact John Lundstram made when he was shoehorned into the apex of their midfield at the beginning of the 2019/20 season, after then manager Chris Wilder fathomed more physicality was required there. And the downturn in results when United eventually plumped for a more technical option - stripping Lundstram of his enthusiasm in the process.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

But as everyone knows, they are now back in the Championship. Which means McBurnie must be allowed to focus on what he does well - dribbling, making runs and laying off passes before peeling away into position - rather than waste time trying to be something he isn’t.

With David McGoldrick joining Rhian Brewster on United’s casualty list, Wilder’s successor Paul Heckingbottom needs McBurnie fit and firing on all cylinders. Particularly, given his experience, as the battle for play-off qualification enters a critical phase.

Daniel Jebbison, recently recalled from a spell on loan with Burton Albion, is a precious talent. But reading between the lines of Heckingbottom’s comments about team selection following the teenager’s return from the Pirelli Stadium, it is clear coaching staff do not yet think he is ready to spearhead United’s attack on a regular basis as they chase promotion.

Oli McBurnie has an importnt role to play for Sheffield United, who face his former club Swansea City next: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

“The potential is clear for everyone to see,” Heckingbottom wrote in his programme notes ahead of the goalless draw against City. “But we need to continue to develop him.”

“Blades fans love to see one of their own, we are conscious of that,” he continued. “But it has to be right for Jebbo to thrive to benefit everyone.”

Jebbison, aged 18, acquitted himself superbly well when he was handed an opportunity towards the end of last term - scoring on his full senior debut at Everton. But relegation had already been confirmed by the time United prevailed on Merseyside. They could play, if not completely without fear or pressure, certainly under less than they are right now as Heckingbottom’s men attempt to force themselves into the top six.

“There’s an expectation there, and you can feel it,” he said. “But that’s good, as far as I’m concerned anyway. Because it means we are involved in matches where there’s a lot at stake, that actually mean something. We want that because we wanted to be in this position in the first place. So the more (expectation) the better really. We go out there believing we should be winning as well. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

I expect Jebbison will make his seventh appearance for United pretty soon. Possibly even against Russell Martin’s squad or Blackburn Rovers next week. Still, you get why Heckingbottom is minded to err on the side of caution and put his trust in McBurnie right now. Not that nous is the Scotland international’s only attribute. He is also, as United discovered on several occasions before eventually signing him, a damn good striker. When used properly.

McBurnie’s finishing is understandably a little rusty. But if he continues to apply himself as he did on Tuesday, then he’ll receive all the help he needs to ensure it rediscovers its polish from the terraces.