James Shield: The big issues Sheffield United must still address to avoid blowing their big Premier League chance

Some things in life are mind-numbingly predictable.

Thursday, 4th August 2022, 5:05 pm

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James Shield: This is a huge and pivotal season for Sheffield United

Taxes, death…the fact that the next time anyone even puts half a toenail out of line whilst watching a game of men’s football, we’ll be treated to a series of hand wringing comment pieces about how they’ve sullied the legacy of England’s brilliant Lionesses at this summer’s Euros. Oh, and the fact that Sheffield United will do everything within their power to make it difficult for themselves or blow what should be a mighty big chance.

One game into a new season, it’s far too soon to begin making sweeping statements about how Paul Heckingbottom’s squad will perform.

Even if this weekend’s clash with Millwall doesn’t go according to plan, a draw or a defeat following Monday’s loss at Watford wouldn’t signal the end of the campaign. Although, I’ve got to say, the performances of opposition forwards Ismaila Sarr and Emmanuel Dennis provided a sobering reminder of the standards Heckingbottom’s players will be required to reach in order to challenge for a top two finish.

Assuming they remain in Hertfordshire beyond the end of the transfer window of course. (I say Hertfordshire because, to the best of my knowledge, neither Sarr nor Dennis has a burning desire to represent Stevenage, St Albans City or Colney Heath).

What United actually need, even more that a positive result against the visitors from London, is a proper, concrete strategy. One capable of being communicated in simple terms - fancy language and complex explanations are for the most part, tricks to disguise the truth - and then actioned on the pitch. Because, quite frankly, I’m struggling to tell you what the grand vision Heckingbottom, through no fault of his own, is supposedly working towards right now. Other than promotion - which is an ambition, not a plan - and a promise to bring youngsters through the youth system. Something every serious club should be looking to do anyway.

Sheffield United in front of their loyal fans before Monday's visit to Watford: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

I’ve placed my concerns about United’s use of the loan system on record countless times over the past 12 months. Particularly at a time when more than 10 of those employed on permanent contracts are set to become free agents this summer.

It should be used to embellish a squad. Not build its core. So, although Reda Khadra, Ciaran Clark and Tommy Doyle are all fine players, it wasn’t encouraging to see Heckingbottom’s employers brokering another temporary deal before Joao Pedro’s second half strike proved enough to settle the clash at Vicarage Road.

James McAtee, Manchester City’s teenage midfielder, may or may not be a brilliant young player. I sincerely hope he does well.

But his presence does nothing to allay fears that United are being governed by short-term thinking whilst distracting people’s attention by talking big about the future. Their interest in him is also surprising given that drafting in cover and competition for George Baldock, while Jayden Bogle is unavailable for selection, seemed to be the priority.

The Star's Sheffied United writer James Shield

Heckingbottom has performed pretty well in the transfer market, despite the financial constraints he is clearly operating under. Managers don’t usually mention facility upgrades at their training grounds within conversations about recruitment budgets. Heckingbottom did, ahead of the meeting with Rob Edwards’ side. Which provides a clue towards some of the decisions which are being taken behind the scenes.

Whether or not you feel United have made the most of the chances that spending two of the last four seasons in the Premier League presented them with, even if you aren’t concerned by the fact they have little to spend despite borrowing against a portion of fees received and parachute payments, the 44-year-old and his staff are clearly being forced to make choices between personnel and infrastructure.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom is preparing his team to face Millwall: Adam Davy/PA Wire.

One suspects others, involving existing members of United’s squad, will have to be made soon.

Sander Berge doesn’t want to stay. If he did, then he would have instructed his agent a long time ago to stop hawking him around Europe. United’s hierarchy probably won’t be too gutted to see him depart either, with journalists recently being briefed that they will consider any offer which provides them with a return on their investment in the Norway international rather than insist potential suitors trigger his release clause.

Max Lowe also had a bit of a ‘mare after coming on against Watford. But it’s not difficult to fathom why he probably wasn’t in the best frame of mind ahead of the match.

Having seen a move to Nottingham Forest collapse after helping Steve Cooper’s men reach the top flight, the defender, who spent last term at the City Ground, then saw an opportunity to compete in the Champions League disappear when Olympiakos failed to negotiate his release.

In the middle of all this, Lowe was being told that United were keen for him to stay. Then, when the starting eleven was unveiled before Monday’s fixture, he found himself on the bench behind Enda Stevens.

Christian Kabasele of Watford and Reda Khadra of Sheffield United: Jonathan Moscrop / Sportimage

I’m a big fan of the Republic of Ireland wing-back. Both on the pitch and off it. But, let’s be frank, he hasn’t been at his best for around a year now. Lowe, who came on after the break when Stevens went off injured, must have felt he was worthy of more than a supporting role.

If United are to fulfil their potential, in order for them to challenge for a top six finish again, then his blueprint for sporting success must revolve around permanent acquisitions and not be influenced by events elsewhere behind the scenes.

In short, whether we like it or not, the board of directors must bring in fresh investment. Or sweat the assets they’ve already got even more. They can do it, because they’ve done so in the past. They must do it again now.