Sheffield United: Boss has no choice but to gamble as injuries continue to mount up

Forty-eight hours before a fixture which would never happen, as the nation enters a period of mourning following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and Paul Heckingbottom’s mood was already sombre.
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Usually eloquent and loquacious, willing to converse with those in attendance on a variety of different topics, the Sheffield United manager’s answers to questions posed during Thursday’s pre-match media briefing were short, perilously sharp and straight to the point. Only enquiries about Rotherham, the side his team were supposed to be facing at Bramall Lane tomorrow, elicited any sort of vaguely protracted response.

The reasons for Heckingbottom’s demeanour quickly became clear. A work schedule which required him to be in ten places at once was partly to blame, with members of the club’s PR department later telling journalists the 44-year-old was already “stupidly busy” before he stepped into the room for an hour long Q&A. But most of all it was the news that Max Lowe’s name has now been added to a casualty list which, as Heckingbottom had joked only one week earlier, already includes enough senior players to construct a team capable of challenging for promotion.

Max Lowe, the Sheffield United defender, limps off at Hull City: Simon Bellis / SportimageMax Lowe, the Sheffield United defender, limps off at Hull City: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Max Lowe, the Sheffield United defender, limps off at Hull City: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
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“We are in a really tough moment,” he acknowledged, after confirming the defender’s hamstring injury is much worse than was initially hoped. “But it won’t change our approach. We just have to get on with things. You can go into any pub in the country and hear someone tell you why they didn’t make it as a footballer. Women, booze, fitness or whatever else. But you rarely come across someone who tells you why they did make it. That’s because rather than talking about things, they were ready to just get on with things and do what was required.”

Remarkably, despite being without the likes of John Fleck, Enda Stevens, Jack Robinson and Ciaran Clark, United had prepared for their meeting with Paul Warne’s side on top of the Championship table after beating Hull City 2-0 last weekend. The win at the MKM Stadium was their fifth of a seven game unbeaten run which started following their narrow defeat by Watford during this season’s opening round of contests.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom: Nigel French/PA Wire.Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom: Nigel French/PA Wire.
Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom: Nigel French/PA Wire.

Still, aware nothing is won in September but that plenty can be lost, Heckingbottom is growing increasingly concerned by the fitness issues United have experienced at the beginning of the campaign. Jayden Bogle, a long term absentee, is progressing towards a return. But with Billy Sharp, Ismaila Coulibaly, Adam Davies and Ben Osborn also set to miss the South Yorkshire derby, the options at United’s disposal are becoming painfully thin. It is telling that Heckingbottom, who takes great pride in the combative nature of his training regime, now feels compelled to limit the amount of full contact sessions being staged at the Randox Health Academy.

“There’s an intensity to how we work,” he said. “But that is a consideration now, definitely, because we don’t want to risk anything else. We can still get that intensity, with a lot of the unopposed stuff.

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“Still, I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I didn’t admit it wasn’t something that’s on our minds. Because it is.”

United have done remarkably well to produce both the results, and the consistently high level performances usually required to deliver them, in such testing circumstances.

Billy Sharp is closing in on a return to action for Sheffield United: Simon Bellis / SportimageBilly Sharp is closing in on a return to action for Sheffield United: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Billy Sharp is closing in on a return to action for Sheffield United: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“I was speaking to a group of fans the other day and I told them, because I know the lads and the staff, that they couldn’t wish for a better group with regards to being ready to fight for the club,” Heckingbottom said.

Nevertheless, with only Sharp expected to feature before the upcoming international break, he is aware things can not continue in the same vein without eventually having a detrimental effect. Investigations, led by Heckingbottom and new conditioning guru Tom Little, are being prepared to try and discover both the reasons and the remedies.

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“The ones that bother me are always muscle injuries,” Heckingbottom continued. “Because then I start thinking how people have been warming up, how they’ve been preparing and if they are doing everything they should.

Ben Osborn is out of action at presentBen Osborn is out of action at present
Ben Osborn is out of action at present

“But we seem to be getting loads of contact injuries, or ankle ones. Contacts injuries, I’m not sure you can do a lot about.

“It’s the length of time they’re out for that’s annoying me. We’re not having ones where they can miss a week and then come back, or you can just look after them and guide them through. We’re having ones where they’re going to have to see consultants.

“That winds me up. Of course it does. But we’re trying as hard as we can and we want these lads back fit. We want them to be out there playing.”

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Little’s influence, given the number of freak injuries United are collecting, will become apparent when players enter the later phases of their rehabilitation. Had he not been appointed over the summer, there are suspicions the impact upon Heckingbottom’s selections could have been even worse, although the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief accepts the load being placed on those who are available for selection runs the risk of exacerbating the problem.

“We can’t rotate in certain areas as much as we’d like. And the longer these lads are out for, the more they don’t train, the more of an injury risk they’re at when they do come back.”

It was noticeable, however, that Heckingbottom attempted to ensure the loss of so many key names does not alter the narrative at United. “Spirit” and “Resilience”, he reminded, are two vital ingredients of any promotion winning squad.

“We’re in a difficult moment with injuries, but the young lads are stepping up and others are playing 90 minutes twice a week. Some are playing through knocks. Let’s focus on what we’ve got, not what we haven’t. We also need the fans’ support and their appreciation, because that goes a long way towards getting more out of the players.”