Sheffield United: A big lesson from Aston Villa and greatest threat to promotion hopes

At first glance, it was something to be proud of. Immensely proud of, in fact.

Thursday, 3rd March 2022, 5:00 pm

Sheffield United’s academy, according to researchers at the CIES Football Observatory, has been more profitable than Bayern Munich’s over the past seven years. Oh, and the ones belonging to Tottenham Hotspur, Lazio and also their namesakes from Manchester. Even though a spokesperson for the institute later admitted via an apologetic email, they’d inadvertently got their figures wrong.

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So United got bumped down the rearranged list.

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Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom: Paul Terry / Sportimage

Still, it was nice while it lasted. And the fact their name even got a mention in the conversation confirms the people there know their onions when it comes to identifying and nurturing young potential.


But context is important. The more you think about it, is this the kind of paper United really want to be included in? The answer, ideally, is ‘no’. Unless those home grown players being sold are either not considered good enough for their first team - a la Chelsea, who have effectively weaponised their youth and loan programmes - or the fees being received for them are so astronomically high, they can fund a makeover of an entire first team squad.

Worst case scenario, the best graduates of United’s youth programme should only be allowed to move on once Paul Heckingbottom or whoever is in charge at the time have enjoyed at least a few seasons reaping the benefits of their talents. I’m thinking Jack Grealish and Aston Villa, who received a reported £100m fee from Manchester City for the midfielder because he was sold at rhe right time. I’m not so sure the £1m United banked in exchange for Dominic Calvert-Lewin when he moved to Everton, after making only 12 senior appearances, represented quite the same value. Particularly when you consider those people responsible for taking him to Goodison Park are adamant, actually make that absolutely insistent, the striker, since capped 11 times by England, cost a damn sight less than that. Aaron Ramsdale’s summer move to Arsenal, which we have since discovered was handled insensitively by two of the three parties involved, falls into the same bracket.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield


As we all know, there’s a food chain in the game. Unless there is a material change in their status and financial circumstances, the very finest members of United’s squad will sooner or later gravitate towards more minted clubs. And the same goes for those players who complete moves to Bramall Lane, after deciding that a switch to South Yorkshire represents a step forward in their careers.

But United, who count also Harry Maguire, Kyle Walker, Kyle Naughton, Matthew Lowton as alumni, must ensure they get better value out of the players they produce. Those four, plus Calvert-Lewin, made a combined total of 324 appearances before being poached. Remove Maguire from the equation and that falls to 158. Grealish took part in 213 games for Villa ahead of his switch to City.

Enough said. If two or three of these had stayed a little longer, had United been more robust when doing business and driven up their asking prices, I think it’s fair to say they might have spent more than two seasons out of 15 competing at Premier League level.

Sheffield United hope to be celebrating after the game against Nottingham Forest: Isaac Parkin / Sportimage

What bothers me isn’t the fact United have lost these lads. It’s when they lost them, what they lost them for and the sense that their exits were viewed by some folk there as being utterly inevitable. A change of mindset, and better sense of timing, is required.


Lot’s of good things are happening on the pitch at United right now. Parking aside last weekend’s performance and subsequent defeat at Millwall, Paul Heckingbottom and his team are delivering entertainment and results. That is an important combination, given the cost of living crisis most football fans are set to experience.

Clubs often take the loyalty of their fans for granted. But faced with a choice between keeping a roof over their head, putting fuel in the car or paying for gas and electric, even those who go to extraordinary lengths to follow their team up and down the country are likely to view a matchday ticket as a luxury rather than essential item. It’s an issue I’m sure most sides, other than those who pull in huge numbers of game-day tourists, are going to have to confront over the next six to 12 months. United included.

Watching them in action against Gary Rowett’s side, one couldn’t help but notice how shattered they appeared. Physically and mentally. We probably shouldn’t be surprised, given it was the seventh time they had played in 22 days. And, as Heckingbottom recently admitted, both he and his coaching staff took a conscious decision to trim their squad during the recent transfer window. Before Rhian Brewster, David McGoldrick and Jayden Bogle were all ruled out for the season and Chris Basham joined Enda Stevens and Ben Osborn in the treatment room. The same treatment room, it turns out, George Baldock and Conor Hourihane have both been spending time in ahead of tomorrow’s game against Nottingham Forest.

With United’s only outfield signing in January - the on-loan Charlie Goode - suspended for the meeting with Forest and also next week’s clash with Middlesbrough - you can’t help wonder if Heckingbottom’s fine work since taking charge deserved to be rewarded more before the deadline.

We can all read the tea leaves. After borrowing against the money Arsenal paid to snare Ramsdale, United clearly don’t have huge sums to splash around.

But it wasn’t as if the fixture log-jam appeared out of nowhere. Everyone knew, following a spate of postponements over Christmas and New Year, this was going to be an issue before the market opened.

It would be a crying shame if, having won nine and drawn three of his 14 Championship matches in charge, if injuries and fatigue derail Heckingbottom’s attempt to take United up.