Sheffield United: Everything The Blades will be doing during the most important two weeks of their season

Paul Heckingbottom has plotted Sheffield United’s course through the international break, as he prepares his squad for the final eight games of the Championship season.

Tuesday, 22nd March 2022, 3:05 pm

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Sheffield United: The decision that could have saved Billy Sharp's season

Having seen top goalscorer Billy Sharp join the ranks of Bramall Lane’s walking wounded over the weekend, Heckingbottom has held a series of consultations with members of the coaching and medical departments designed to prevent injuries derailing its push for play-off qualification.

Although United’s selection issues eased ahead of last weekend’s game against Barnsley, with John Fleck, Enda Stevens and Oli McBurnie all returning to action, the situation remains so acute it has prompted claims their campaign will be decided in the treatment room rather than on the pitch.

It is a theory to which Heckingbottom appears to subscribe, after unveiling a two-pronged approach to the most important fortnight in United’s recent history; a period which, lending weight to that argument, does not contain any domestic fixtures.

“The lads already know what they are doing and what the plan is,” he said. “They were told before (Saturday’s match) exactly what was going to happen and what was expected of them.

“I’ll be seeing some of them. But the others. If they ring me up then I know there’s a problem. I actually don’t want to hear from them until they are scheduled to come back.”

MIND AS WELL AS MATTER

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom has plotted a course through the international break: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

By confirming he does not plan to re-establish contact with many of his leading names until “Thursday or Friday” at the earliest, Heckingbottom confirmed suspicions he believes psychological stress poses as great a threat to United’s promotion hopes as physical fatigue. The meeting with Barnsley, which they won 2-0 thanks to second-half goals from Sander Berge and Morgan Gibbs-White, was his team’s 12th outing in the space of only 43 days. Given the amount of tactical analysis United complete, with Heckingbottom revealing they had spent two days “in the classroom” beforehand, that could explain why his side have started two of their last three assignments slowly.

Nottingham Forest, ranked ninth but having taken part in two games fewer, contested seven league fixtures over the same period; although Steve Cooper’s men did sandwich in three FA Cup ties.

Queens Park Rangers, two points behind fifth placed United, took part in 10. The same goes for Blackburn Rovers, in sixth.

“I want them to be mentally fresh.” Heckingbottom said. “I don’t want them to be doing any football or thinking about football, to be honest.

Sheffield United captain Billy Sharp is receiving treatment for a hamstring injury: Ashley Crowden / Sportimage

“Those lads, the ones who have been involved in those, they’ll be recharging their batteries. They’ll be refreshing themselves. I want them to have a break and a rest.”

The same luxury will not be extended to those who are rehabilitating from fitness issues. Before Fleck, McBurnie and Stevens returned to action, although the latter remained on the bench against the visitors from Oakwell, Heckingbottom estimated that “around half” of his outfield players were unavailable for selection. The sight of Sharp, not only his most prolific marksman but also most creative performing in terms of assists, limping-out of the clash with Poya Asbaghi’s men after damaging a hamstring cast a shadow over that result.

“Billy, he’ll be coming in,” Heckingbottom continued. “He wasn’t going to be but he is now, obviously.

“The same goes for all the others who have been out. Hopefully we’ll see some of them coming back (after the break). We need to see some of them coming back, that’s for sure.

John Egan is away on international duty with the Republic of Ireland: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

“They’ll all be working hard over the next few days. They’re fighting to get fit again. We’re trying to get them fit again and, although they’ve all been giving everything to make sure that happens, it goes without saying they’ve not had the same (work) load as those who have been going out there and playing as well.”

THE TOUGHEST CALL OF ALL

With David McGoldrick, Jayden Bogle and record signing Rhian Brewster ruled-out until the summer, Chris Basham and Ben Davies reported for duty alongside Sharp at United’s training complex on Monday. Heckingbottom faced a tougher call, however, about whether or not to grant the likes of George Baldock and Ben Osborn time off. Baldock volunteered to face Barnsley after making progress in his battle to overcome a knee problem before that idea was vetoed by Heckingbottom.

Osborn, meanwhile, was coaxed through United’s recent clashes with Middlesbrough, Coventry City and Barnsley in order to prevent him suffering a recurrence of the problem which troubled him last month.

“It’s influencing decisions in-games as well as before them,” Heckingbottom told The Star less than a fortnight ago. “Take Ben. We were chasing goals (against City) but we had to protect him because he’s only just come back and we don’t want to lose him again.”

LOOKING BEYOND THE REGULAR SEASON

On-loan from Aston Villa, Conor Hourihane is also away with Ireland: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

Heckingbottom, his assistant Stuart McCall and head of player development Jack Lester have rightly been praised for guiding United into the top six despite their crippling selection problems. But if they do reach the postseason knockouts, they will want to enter those matches with Basham and Davies at their disposal.

The pause in the domestic calendar also represents an opportunity to undertake remedial work at the Randox Health Academy, after Heckingbottom confessed conditions there left much to be desired. He refused to say so explicitly, but the 44-year-old privately fears the heavy playing surfaces might have contributed to United’s injury situation.

United will begin preparing for April 2nd’s trip to Stoke City later this week. However, internationals John Egan, Berge, Conor Hourihane, Gibbs-White, Rhys Norrington-Davies and Adam Davies will not join them until a week on Thursday. Daniel Jebbison and Hassan Ayari are also on duty with their respective countries.

“It looks like you have a lot of time to get ready but really, in reality, that’s not the case,” Heckingbottom said. “We won’t get everyone back until just before, so it’s difficult to do all the work you want.

“But there’s still things we can do and yes, this is going to be a very important period for us.”

Sheffield United's Sander Berge has een called-up by Norway: Darren Staples / Sportimage
Morgan Gibbs-White is away with England's under-21 side: Darren Staples / Sportimage