James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: It probably won’t be Billy Sharp and Oliver Norwood who decide if Chris Wilder’s squad reaches the Premier League
If, and hopefully it remains an 'if', Billy Sharp was to get injured or suspended between now and the end of the season, it would leave Sheffield United in something of a hole.
The centre-forward's goals, 23 in 32 outings to be exact, have been a driving force behind their rise to third in the table. Without them, coupled with the fact many have come at key moments of games, Chris Wilder's team are unlikely to have prepared for Saturday's meeting with Reading still chasing automatic promotion.
Oliver Norwood is another 'untouchable'. Probably Chris Basham and Jack O'Connell too, if indeed such a thing exists at United. Players have been rested in recent weeks but, I'll wager a greasy chip butty for every season ticket holder, that you can count the number of times coaching staff were considering given one of this trio an evening off on the fingers of one hand. Until injury and suspension intervened ahead of Wednesday's victory over Middlesbrough.
Yet there is an argument the most important members of United's squad between now and the end of the campaign, those who will ultimately be responsible for deciding whether or not Bramall Lane is hosting top-flight football next term, are to be found further down the roster. I'm talking about the likes of Martin Cranie, Richard Stearman and Paul Coutts, who have spent most of the past six months watching from the bench. But, barring their part in an FA Cup aberration against Barnet, have never let anyone down in the Championship. Indeed, Stearman actually grabbed the headlines by scoring the winning goal against the visitors from Teesside.
United's unique system, which in the unlikely event it has escaped your notice involves attacking wing-backs and overlapping centre-halves, has proven remarkably successful since it was first unveiled a month or so into Wilder's reign. Opponents find it difficult to stop, even though they know in advance exactly how it works.
Yet, precisely because of its eccentricities, this approach leaves United probably more vulnerable than the majority of the division's other leading clubs to the loss of key names. On paper at least.
Given that so few of their contemporaries are capable of attacking so effectively, the loss of either Basham or O'Connell would previously have forced Wilder to change his entire strategy or, worse still, stick rigidly to it in the knowledge his side was ill-equipped. Further upfield, the same could be said of Norwood given not only the importance of his passing range but also ability to provide John Egan with cover when they go surging forward.
With Basham again suspended this weekend, the presence of Cranie and his two colleagues provides United with security and prevents them from being required to make wholesale tactical changes at a pivotal stage of the campaign.
Kieran Dowell, signed on loan from Everton last month, brings yet more strategic surety. Deployed at wing-back when Enda Stevens was tasked with deputising for the unfit O'Connell two days ago, the youngster coped admirably and, given the circumstances, was unfortunate not to be named as man-of-the-match.
Over the course of a 46 match season, bans and fitness issues are impossible to avoid. So competition for places, between footballers of comparable skill sets, is essential. Not simply strength in depth. Those on the periphery of the starting eleven, among all the division's leading contenders, will influence who finishes where.