Premier League bound Sheffield United show style and sentiment at Birmingham City

It is a measure of how well Sheffield United have performed this season that Paul Heckingbottom could allow sentiment to influence his team selections as well as the desire to secure a positive result.
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Some of those whose names featured on the visitors’ roster at St Andrews, where they waved goodbye to the Championship with a routine victory over Birmingham City, might well have been making their final appearances in the famous red and white stripes. Others, including two of Bramall Lane’s most promising young talents, saw their potential recognised with outings from the bench.

“The most wins for us in this division, the most points for us in this division,” said United manager Paul Heckingbottom, after goals from Oli McBurnie and James McAtee ensured his team will enter the Premier League on a record-breaking note. “We’re delighted because those things are important to us.”

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As well as winning promotion with three matches to spare, United also reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup last month. It has been a memorable campaign loaded with majestic moments, made even more remarkable given Heckingbottom’s challenges off the pitch. They include the most protracted proposed takeover in the history of protracted proposed takeovers and until it was lifted using money generated by that march on Wembley, a transfer embargo which prevented him from making signings during the January window. Still, United have collected 91 points and 28 wins en route to the top-flight.

“I wanted the clean sheet too,” continued Heckingbottom, who introduced teenager Will Osula and debutant Jili Buyabu before Dion Sanderson scored City’s consolation. “But I can’t complain with how it’s ended up.”

Another symptom of the problems facing United behind the scenes is the sheer volume of contracts set to expire this summer. Eight of those on duty in the West Midlands have entered the final few weeks of their agreements. Another two, Tommy Doyle and McAtee, are scheduled to rejoin Manchester City after completing hugely successful loans. The midfielders, who both hit the woodwork in a matter of seconds during a first-half skirmish inside City’s penalty box, will leave big holes to fill in Heckingbottom’s squad unless deals can be brokered which would see them return. McAtee’s effort, after McBurnie had broken the deadlock, was his fifth in 10 outings.

Although Lukas Jutkiewicz also struck the crossbar with an early header, the 114th meeting between these two clubs was a predictably humdrum affair. United had already achieved their objective. City, 15 places behind them in 17th, were also competing purely for pride. With a sun-kissed beach beckoning in some des res resort, even that didn’t prove enough of an incentive for these usually uber-competitive beings to slip into sixth gear for prolonged periods.

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When United did, soon after seeing George Baldock limp-off with an injury, it ended with McBurnie handing them the lead. The striker, another of those wondering if he is about to become a free agent, glanced home a header after meeting Chris Basham’s cross. McAtee quickly doubled United’s advantage, taking the ball off Iliman Ndiaye’s boot, when City’s rearguard disappeared following Jack Robinson’s long punt.

Oliver McBurnie of Sheffield United challenged by Dion Sanderson of Birmingham City: Simon Bellis / SportimageOliver McBurnie of Sheffield United challenged by Dion Sanderson of Birmingham City: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Oliver McBurnie of Sheffield United challenged by Dion Sanderson of Birmingham City: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Sanderson pulled one back during the closing stages but Heckingbottom’s men comfortably saw the game out.

“Now we’re getting ready for another huge test,” he said. “But one we want.”

Birmingham City: Etheridge, Longelo, Sanderson, Dean (Chang 83), Trusty (Roberts 66), Bacuna (Mejbri 66), Bielik, Graham, Bellingham, Khadra (James 66), Jutkiewicz (Deeney 66). Not used: Jeacock, Sanusi.

Sheffield United: Davies, Baldock (Berge 50), Basham, Egan ©, Robinson, Stevens (Buyabu 73), Doyle, Fleck (Norwood 73), McAtee (Osula 57), Ndiaye, McBurnie (Sharp 57). Not used: Foderingham, Brooks.

Referee: David Webb (Lancashire).