James Shield: The Sheffield United youngster as important to the club's future as Billy Sharp

Sheffield United aren’t a one man team by any stretch of the imagination.

Friday, 29th April 2022, 7:33 am

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If they were then Paul Heckingbottom’s side wouldn’t be preparing to face Queens Park Rangers tomorrow night sixth in the Championship table.

But although managers are loath to admit it, not every member of their starting eleven or substitutes bench is equal. The great Milan squad that ruled Europe in the late Eighties, (one of the best ever assembled in my humble opinion), wouldn’t have been quite the same if Franco Baresi, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten had been ruled-out of action. Or Mauro Tassotti, Frank Rijkaard, Alessandro Costacurta or Paolo Maldini for that matter. And don’t forget Roberto Donadoni.

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Sheffield United's Iliman Ndiaye has huge potential: Zac Goodwin/PA Wire.

Arrigo Sacchi, who was never a horse but turned out to be a remarkable jockey, famously demanded “11 active players in every moment of the game.” He also - and Heckingbottom would agree with this whether he admires the Italian or not - insisted the “only way” you can achieve success is by identifying “individuals who can” work within a group: “You can’t achieve anything on your own and, if you do, it doesn’t last long. I often quote what Michelangelo said.” And that, for those of you unfamiliar with the High Renaissance, was “The spirit guides the hand.” Still, if you privately asked Sacchi whether everyone in the Rossoneri’s dressing room at the San Siro back then - the stadium has two more; one for Internazionale and another for the visitors - was equally important, he’d probably admit ‘no’. Because that’s not, even though folk sometimes like to pretend otherwise, how football works.

The same is true of United. Although, as well as they’ve done since Heckingbottom’s appointment in November, I’m not comparing them to Sacchi’s illustrious group by any stretch of the imagination.

Billy Sharp, for example, is by far the best centre-forward at United’s disposal ahead of their visit to west London. His presence, through sheer force of personality, also means even when he doesn’t find the back of the net that he brings something to the table.

The same goes for Morgan Gibbs-White, who brings something unpredictable to games. And, by exactly the same token, Iliman Ndiaye.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

Why is the young Frenchman so vital to United’s future? Even though, until scoring twice in his last two appearances, he had been used sparingly in recent weeks? Because Gibbs-White is on loan. And the better he does, the more likely it is he won’t be at Bramall Lane next season. Even if United go up, with a number of established top-flight outfits likely to be interested in acquiring his services should Wolverhampton Wanderers decide he doesn’t quite fit into Bruno Lage’s system.

Ndiaye, for me, is Gibbs-White’s heir apparent. He has a little bit of magic about him. The ability to do something, as Fulham discovered when they were beaten by United at Craven Cottage in December, out of the ordinary. Or, after enjoying another viewing of his wonderful solo effort there, simply extraordinary.

That isn’t to say Ndiaye isn’t without his critics. Indeed, explaining earlier this month that he wanted to see more “end product” and “goals” from Ndiaye, Heckingbottom himself has often been one of those. Others point out, and quite correctly I admit, that Gibbs-White is a much more mature footballer. Despite being only two months older than his colleague.

What must be remembered when judging Ndiaye’s progress - and also his potential - is that Gibbs-White has spent his entire career within the professional system. At Molineux, the attacking midfielder has been receiving the best coaching, the best tactical advice and subjected to an individually tailored development programme since enrolling at Wolves’ academy aged just eight.

Sheffield United's Iliman Ndiaye (centre) celebrates scoring a goal in the Championship: Zac Goodwin/PA Wire.

Ndiaye, by contrast, has taken a much more unremarkable path into the professional game. Okay, so there were brief spells with Rouen and Marseille as a youngster. But most of his apprenticeship was served, after arriving in South Yorkshire three years ago, during a placement at Hyde. Former youth coaches Mick Wadsworth and Travis Binnion, who is now working at Old Trafford, spotted something in him after being tipped off about his availability whilst representing Boreham Wood. Then manager Chris Wilder later invited Ndiaye to train with United’s first team - before his progress was halted by a diktat from higher up, following a contractual issue, that he must not be selected for either under-23 or senior fixtures. Slavisa Jokanovic, Heckingbottom’s immediate predecessor, personally intervened to sort the situation out after Ndiaye also captured his imagination during pre-season.

Context is important when measuring the 22-year-old’s prowess and potential. It’s something many of those folk who compare him unfavourably to Gibbs-White fail to appreciate - not least when insisting, as I recently heard inside Bramall Lane’s media room: “He’s 23 next and that means he’s got to hurry up.” Just out of interest, why does it?

If Gibbs-White and Ndiaye were professional boxers, the former would be the graduate of countless ABA campaigns snapped-up by a big promoter. The latter, although admittedly I might be stretching this a little too far, is the gifted fighter learning on the job in the paid ranks after accumulating little amateur experience. One whose skills will shine through in the long run, providing they’re tutored well in the gym and expertly matched in the ring before being let off the leash.

With only two outings remaining on the regular season schedule and travelling to the capital occupying the Championship’s fourth and final play-off spot, United are only interested in the here and now at present. If Sharp is fit enough to start against Rangers, and rekindle his own exciting partnership with Gibbs-White, that probably means Ndiaye would be relegated to the bench.

Iliman Ndiaye is a hugely important player for Sheffield United moving forward: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

But, make no mistake about it, he remains one of the most enigmatic, important and potentially emblematic members of Heckingbottom’s group.