Sheffield United: The decision to include Leon Clarke in Premier League squad makes perfect sense

When Chris Wilder added Leon Clarke's name to the 25 man squad list Sheffield United submitted to the Premier League, eyebrows were raised in some quarters because the centre-forward effectively remains on the transfer list.

Wednesday, 4th September 2019, 14:09 pm
Updated Wednesday, 4th September 2019, 18:31 pm
Former Sheffield United midfielder Paul Coutts (left): Dave Howarth/PA Wire.

But the United manager has made similar plays in the past. And although Clarke the smart money remains on Clarke departing when English football reopens for business next year, if he does enjoy a reprieve it would simply see the centre-forward follow in the footsteps of two other players who stepped back from the brink after being declared surplus to requirements.

One of Wilder's first acts after being appointed in May 2016 was to tell Paul Coutts and Kieran Freeman they could both leave Bramall Lane before, having been convinced of their worth, naming them both in United's starting eleven for a visit to Millwall. Despite ending in defeat, that match and Wilder's selections proved to be a turning point in their season, with the two going on to make a combined total of 84 appearances as United surged towards promotion from League One.

Back then, Wilder's decision to circulate the duo's names was based on their performances the season before. Having frequently watched United as a fan - he was still in charge of Northampton Town at the time - the 51-year-old witnessed Coutts and Freeman labour under his predecessor Nigel Adkins; flattering to deceive as the team meandered towards a mid-table finish. But a combination of their response, and performances in training, persuaded Wilder he had made a mistake. Oliver Norwood's arrival, after Coutts had suffered a serious injury the season before, hastened the Scot's departure. But Freeman still remains in South Yorkshire, albeit on the periphery of Wilder's plans.

Chris Wilder, the Sheffield United manager: James Wilson/Sportimage

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Last month, when United were finding it difficult to place some of their fringe players with rival clubs, Wilder expressed his frustration with the situation by encouraging them to put their careers before money and "be a footballer." He later rolled back, insisting his comments had not been directed at all of those who had been told they could go. Only some. Clearly Clarke was not among them.

"My frustration doesn't represent the whole group," Wilder admitted later, clarifying his comments. "Just one or two who haven't really played for two years or so. Maybe they should recognise that.

"They've been good for us and been on the journey. But the journey - no disrespect to them - has been too quick for some. It's important they play football."

If Clarke is serious about trying to force his way into Wilder's thinking for a top-flight fixture, the process will also begin at the Steelphalt Academy, where United are preparing for next week's game against Southampton. With the likes of Oli McBurnie, Callum Robinson and Billy Sharp ahead of him, the 34-year-old knows it could take an injury or illness crisis to see him even make the bench. But unlike Coutts and Freeman, he is not beginning from a standing start having featured 24 times as United won promotion from the Championship last term.

Kieron Freeman is still a Sheffield United player: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Wilder's reasoning, before signing-off the names their footballing adminstration department submitted to the governing body, also makes perfect sense. Having previously revealed his preference for working with "the right numbers" and "pretty tight groups", effectively telling a senior professional he has no chance whatsoever of being called-up would potentially be detrimental to spirit behind the scenes.

"We work hard," Wilder said, before his picks were announced. "But it's also important that people enjoy themselves as well."

Leon Clarke is in Sheffield United's Premier League squad: James Wilson/Sportimage