James Shield: The risk Sheffield United must now seriously consider taking

First, before I go any further, I want to make it clear I’m not one of those fans who thinks football was better when it was played in sepia, GBH was a legitimate defensive tactic and goals were celebrated with nothing more than a brisk, firm handshake.

Thursday, 21st April 2022, 5:00 pm

Even though the game is in danger of going soft. And, while I’m on the subject, pundits and fans who trot out the ‘Well, there was contact’ line whenever a penalty is awarded turn me puce.

So this is an observation. Not the rant of some sporting Luddite. And it comes with an important caveat: There’s a distinction to be made when it comes to health matters. Serious ones, like the risk of dementia and concussion protocols. Not some of the more ridiculous measures folk were forced to adhere to whilst contests were being staged during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Over the past few years, the game has experienced something akin to a scientific mission creep. A trend which means ‘experts’ with dubious qualifications and even more obscure briefs have come to exert the type of influence over a manager or coach even the most domineering of club owners could only dream of.

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Substitutions are now made if a computer calculates someone is approaching the red zone. Or - and trust me, I did get told this once - their logarithms, whatever the heck that means, are out of sync. Well-trained eyes and hunches, the result of decades at the coalface, are no longer considered important because they can’t be quantified or displayed on a flow chart. The more you think about it, the more nonsensical it is.

What has all of this got to do with Sheffield United I hear you ask? Assuming you’ve got this far of course. Well, the answer could be everything. Maybe absolutely nothing. But in a sense that isn’t important.

Sixth in the table with three games remaining ahead of Cardiff City’s visit to Bramall Lane this weekend, Paul Heckingbottom’s side are on course to secure the top six finish they require to earn themselves a shot at the Premier League. But not everything in the garden is rosy. They’re now only a point ahead of seventh placed Millwall and within touching distance of Blackburn Rovers, Middlesbrough and Queens Park Rangers; their next opponents after the clash with Steve Morison’s men.

We all know why the race is so close. United can’t take the chances, or enough of them to be exact, that they are creating. Which makes it vital Billy Sharp, still their best centre-forward despite turning 36 earlier this year, gets back on the pitch as quickly as possible. For those of you who live in a vacuum, the lad has missed United’s last five outings with a hamstring complaint.

Sheffield United captain Billy Sharp has been out of action since the international break: Alistair Langham / Sportimage

Sharp has scored 15 times in all competitions this term, with 14 of those efforts coming in the Championship. To put it another way, he’s responsible for a quarter - give or take the odd fraction of a percentage - of their strikes in the league since August. Just for good measure, he’s also created another seven. Only Morgan Gibbs-White, on target during Monday’s draw with Bristol City, has been as productive in this department.

United have found the back of the net only three times in Sharp’s absence. When Heckingbottom addressed the media following the Bank Holiday clash at Ashton Gate, he found himself reading from a well-worn script.

‘If we’d have been more clinical,’ he said, in a roundabout sort of way. ‘Then we’d have won. Except we weren’t. And so we didn’t.’

You don’t need a UEFA Pro Licence to know Heckingbottom was correct. United fashioned plenty of openings against Nigel Pearson’s charges. Enough to have been pretty comfortable at the break. But, predictably, after fluffing a hatful or not making the most of some pretty elegant approach work, they fell behind before Gibbs-White got them out of the cart.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield believes the club must take a gamble on Billy Sharp

The most intriguing part of Hecingbottom’s speech, however, came when he went off piste.

“If you ask him, he’s fit,” the 44-year-old replied, when asked when Sharp might return. “Hopefully we’ll get him back out there at the weekend.”

Interestingly, Heckingbottom made a similar comment not so long back. Which suggests Sharp is either kidding himself, genuinely mistaken or is deliberately being eased through the final part of his recovery programme to ensure he’s firing on all cylinders for the end of season knockouts.

If the answer is one of the first two, then United are correct not to select him. I know, following my own interactions with them and countless testimonies from others, their experts in this department are wise, well-meaning and attuned to the sometimes conflicting demands of their respective disciplines and the manager’s need for positive results.

Manager Paul Heckingbottom is preparing Sheffield United to face Cardiff City: Darren Staples / Sportimage

But if it’s the latter, Heckingbottom and his staff must pull rank and over-rule whoever is holding him back. Maybe even revise their own positions. Because, unless Sharp is declared available for selection immediately, there’s a very real danger United might not qualify for the very thing he would be getting wrapped in cotton wool for.

No footballer, particularly at this stage of a campaign, is ever totally fit. The daft thing is, even though they could all blast me out of sight in the gym, I’m probably carrying less physical damage than every single one. What they’re exceptional at, though, is coaxing themselves through matches.

No one wants to see Sharp disable himself or ruled-out of action for months. The lad himself believes he can carry on for at least another couple of seasons so I don’t suppose he does either.

But if Sharp is in a position to take to the field, even if he’s operating at two thirds of his usual explosiveness, United must let him off the leash.

Okay, it might be risk. One worth taking though, when you consider the potential consequences of not gambling.

Sheffield United's captain and leading goalscorer Billy Sharp is thought to be close to a return: Andrew Yates / Sportimage