Sheffield United: Hard work and self-sacrifice transform one player's reputation with the fans

As what has already been a dramatic season for Sheffield United approaches yet another crossroads, Oli McBurnie can reflect upon a potentially transformative moment in his relationship with a section of the Bramall Lane crowd.

Thursday, 7th April 2022, 4:05 pm

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Forty-eight hours ago the striker, who is expected to spearhead Paul Heckingbottom’s attack against AFC Bournemouth on Saturday, was applauded off the pitch after being substituted towards the end of the win over Queens Park Rangers.

Many of the people, who two and a half weeks earlier had booed when he was introduced against Barnsley, were showing their appreciation for the industry McBurnie demonstrated during the clash with Mark Warburton’s side.

Heckingbottom, who later told The Star that the Scotland international had featured despite being taken ill before the game, was delighted to hear his efforts being rewarded. Particularly, the 44-year-old later admitted, because such examples of self-sacrifice are no longer commonplace in professional football.

“We expect it here, the desire to go out and do what he did,” said Heckingbottom, after revealing McBurnie contracted a stomach bug on the morning of the fixture. “But, and I don’t mind saying this, it doesn’t always happen these days. It used to. But it doesn’t any more.”

McBurnie didn’t claim the goal he craves during a combative shift laced with invention and ingenuity. The 25-year-old enters the meeting with Scott Parker’s second-placed side having scored once all season, in the Carabao Cup. But after being impressed by the commitment his player has shown since a series of fitness and health issues earlier this term, Heckingbottom is clearly determined to ensure the doubters recognise McBurnie’s contribution to a campaign which, having threatened to drift into mediocrity, now sees United chasing a top six finish. Fifth in the table following the clash with Rangers, they are now unbeaten at home since the end of October.

Sheffield United duo John Egan and Oli McBurnie (right) applaud the fans at Bramall Lane: Richard Sellers / Sportimage

Unlike Gareth Southgate, who publicly chastised fans for giving Harry Maguire the bird when the former United defender represented England against the Ivory Coast recently, Heckingbottom has adopted a more subtle approach towards rehabilitating McBurnie’s reputation on the terraces. Rather than explicitly call out his critics, Heckingbottom has preferred to draw attention to what he brings to the team instead; a tactic he employed again following Tuesday’s contest, making special reference to his partnership with Morgan Gibbs-White.

“Morgan is a good player and he responds to being surrounded by other good players,” Heckingbottom said. “I was really pleased with them out there.”

“Morgan is a good player and Oli is a good player,” he continued. “That’s why they work well together. I wasn’t surprised to see it because it happens all the time in training.”

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom is full of admiration for the striker: Richard Sellers / Sportimage

With Billy Sharp still nursing the hamstring injury he suffered during last month’s derby, and Heckingbottom refusing to be drawn on whether he will be ready or not, McBurnie and Gibbs-White are likely to find themselves working together again when Parker’s men make the long journey to South Yorkshire.

Having netted 15 times since August and registered seven assists, Sharp remains a key figure in United’s promotion masterplan. Although he didn’t deliver a virtuoso display during their defeat of Rangers - Oliver Norwood’s first-half shot proving enough to ensure United took all three points - McBurnie also has a crucial role to perform. Particularly as teenagers Will Osula and Daniel Jebbison are the only other recognised centre-forwards available to Heckingbottom at present. The two have bright futures at United. But, as Heckingbottom has reminded on countless occasions of late, this is all about the here and now.

“Players have to deliver, whether the manager supports them or not, they have to deliver,” he said. “And Oli delivered a performance that helped us get three points. So that’s what he’s got to do again and then again after that. It’s what everyone has got to do if we are going to achieve what we want to achieve.”

Bournemouth manager Scott Parker brings his team to Bramall Lane this weekend: Jacob King/PA Wire.

Bournemouth pose a genuine threat to United’s impressive record on home soil. After being backed to the hilt by owner Maxim Demin during a January transfer window which saw the likes of James Hill and Todd Cantwell arrive at the Vitality Stadium, Parker knew his future at the club would be plunged into doubt if he failed to secure a return to the Premier League. But it is exactly the type of pressure every Championship manager would be under and, after experiencing a few wobbles as Cantwell, Kieffer Moore and Seriki Dembele adjusted to their new surroundings, Parker has since lived up to the Russian’s expectations.

Bournemouth, six points clear of third place and with two games in hand on Huddersfield Town, had won three and drawn two of their last five outings before losing to West Bromwich Albion. United slipped to sixth following Nottingham Forest’s win over Coventry City on Wednesday, although they have played one match more than seventh placed Middlesbrough.

“It could go right down to the wire,” acknowledged Heckingbottom. “It will keep changing.”

Beaten in controversial circumstances when they travelled to Dorset earlier this term - Heckingbottom’s predecessor Slavisa Jokanovic arguing, and Parker seemingly agreeing, that neither of Bournemouth’s goals en route to a 2-1 victory should have stood - United are also waiting to learn if Filip Uremovic will be available for selection. The Croat, recruited after suspending his contract with Rubin Kazan, made his debut against Rangers but was replaced midway through the second period. Although United’s physios could be seen checking his knee, Heckingbottom later insisted he was suffering from cramp having walked off the pitch before taking a seat on the bench.

“The lads are doing what is required of them,” Heckingbottom said. “It’s what we demand, the type of thing Oli did. But trust me, it’s not commonplace.”

Oli McBurnie ran himself into the ground against Queens Park Rangers: Richard Sellers / Sportimage