James Shield: The club Sheffield United really should be studying closely

Not so long ago, whenever Sheffield United faced a Premier League team in one of the cups, something always happened.
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Sheffield United: The footballing phrase manager Paul Heckingbottom hates

Well, providing they were facing a certain kind of top-flight team. One which had established itself there without the patronage of a multi-billionaire owner or, as is becoming increasingly common since we discovered how easy it is to sports wash, access to the entire financial resources of some dubious nation state.

I’m talking about the likes of Brighton and Hove Albion, Southampton, Leicester City and, until the laws of gravity finally caught up with them, Burnley. Maybe, depending upon how they fare this season, it will soon be Brentford too.

Sheffield United have signed some fine young players after already amassing some fine young talent: Simon Bellis / SportimageSheffield United have signed some fine young players after already amassing some fine young talent: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Sheffield United have signed some fine young players after already amassing some fine young talent: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
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All of these sides have spent significantly more than United in recent seasons. Either on wages, fees or in the latter’s case scouting. However, although their more partisan followers would doubtless argue otherwise, none of them could claim to be footballing superpowers.

But the club United really should have been trying to be, as fans and journalists including myself used to point out, was Luton Town - who they faced in the Championship at Kenilworth Road last night. Why? Because once you lock away your ego and study the situation on the ground, Nathan Jones’ employers are the perfect example of what can happen if a proper strategy is devised and then followed to the letter. Not simply talked about in beguiling but essentially blithe language and then binned when it suits.

Luton reached last term’s play-off semi-finals not by splashing the cash or because of Jones’ prowess, even though he is clearly a very talented manager. Rather it was because every decision the former Numancia, Southend and Scarborough midfielder made was influenced by and slotted seamlessly into the plan created by those above, alongside and around him. I’m sure there will be stress points behind the scenes there. But, when you boil it all down, everyone there is clearly reading from the same script.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James ShieldThe Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield
The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

At the summit of the table and having won three of their first five outings in the competition this season, United approached their latest assignment in damn good shape. But dig beneath the surface, remember that more than 50 percent of the squad at Paul Heckingbottom’s disposal is either out of contract next summer or could leave at the end of a loan, and it becomes evident there is huge room for improvement when it comes to their internal housekeeping.

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Wherever concerns about the contractual situation are raised, they are countered by claims it provides United with greater flexibility and provides them with an insurance policy in this volatile economic climate. But these arguments ignore the fact that, not so long ago when he was still in caretaker charge, Heckingbottom warned that “uncertainty” is never an essential ingredient of success.

United’s hierarchy deserve credit for allowing Heckingbottom to bring in some supremely gifted performers during the current window. Anel Ahmedhodzic already looks like being the bargain of the campaign.

But I can’t help wondering if results are being delivered because of the excellence being demonstrated by Heckingbottom and his staff.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom: Simon Bellis / SportimageSheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

United don’t want to find themselves in a position whereby they owe everything they achieve to those in the boot room or another facility from Macquarie Bank. They need to be more like Luton.