James Shield: The process Sheffield United should have delayed until promotion fate is known

First it was their defence. Now, as what has been a rollercoaster of a season approaches the final psychedelic yodel inducing triple loop the loop, Sheffield United’s attackers are the ones falling like flies.

Thursday, 7th April 2022, 5:00 pm

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Well, that’s not strictly true. But when you write a column like this, it’s always best to try and grab people’s attention. And, to be fair, the situation is still bloomin’ serious given that the only two strikers at Paul Heckingbottom’s disposal last weekend were Daniel Jebbison and Will Osula.

For those of you who aren’t au fait with Bramall Lane’s first team squad, they are both 18. Oh, and have a combined total of 26 senior appearances between them. Twenty-four of those can be claimed by Jebbison, who spent the first half of the campaign on loan at Burton Albion. The two young lads both have bright futures ahead of them. But as I wrote in The Star before Tuesday’s win over Queens Park Rangers, the scramble to qualify for the Championship play-offs is taking place in the here and now.

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Although Oli McBurnie is expected to face AFC Bournemouth on Saturday after starting against Mark Warburton’s side, Heckingbottom could still be without his leading goalscorer Billy Sharp. United’s captain, now adept at creating chances as well as finishing them, has missed the last two games as he battles to recover from a hamstring injury. Sharp might be 36. But for me, he’s still the most influential performer at the football club. Both in terms of what he brings on the pitch and also sheer personality.

If United are to qualify for the play-offs - and then win them - one suspects they need Sharp fit and firing on all cylinders.

Bad luck has been a factor behind Heckingbottom’s latest selection crisis. A ridiculous series of postponements over the Christmas and New Year period too when, because some clubs seemingly couldn’t be bothered to follow even the most basic social distancing protocols during the Covid-19 pandemic, United’s workload became excruciating in February and March.

But I can’t help wondering if bad planning - or bad timing? - exacerbated the problem. Because it wasn’t so long ago that we were complaining the side Heckingbottom inherited following his appointment in November was top heavy. In other words, overloaded with forwards and light in other areas.

Sheffield United's teenage striker Daniel Jebbison in action against QPR earlier this week: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

United’s squad needed reprofiling. For both footballing and financial reasons. Some of those on the books, including Lys Mousset and Oliver Burke, have obvious flaws. Still, given that United knew the pressures they would be under at this stage of the campaign, surely it would have been better postponing this exercise until the summer rather than allowing Mousset and Burke to both depart on loan. Particularly, until Filip Uremovic’s recent arrival from Rubin Kazan, Heckingbottom was only allowed to draft-in one new outfield player during the winter transfer window.

Yes, hindsight can be a wonderful thing. But it’s not as if United didn’t know, with David McGoldrick already ruled out until the summer, that trimming their options in this area of the pitch was a gamble. Given Sharp’s advancing years and the fact that McBurnie has been struggling, fitness-wise, since being diagnosed with the coronavirus before Christmas, it wasn’t one worth taking. The process should have been scheduled for the summer.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield
Will Osula is highly rated by Sheffield United but still inexperienced: Andrew Yates / Sportimage