Sheffield United: Talks likely to be scheduled with Ismaila Coulibaly after potentially damaging interview

Members of Sheffield United’s coaching staff are expected to speak with Ismaila Coulibaly after the midfielder appeared to unfavourably compare the atmosphere at their training complex with the one he experienced at Beerschot.

Tuesday, 28th June 2022, 1:19 pm
Updated Tuesday, 28th June 2022, 1:51 pm

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Summoned back to England earlier this month - a year before his loan spell with United’s sister club was due to end - Coulibaly told the Gazet van Antwerpen newspaper that relations at the Randox Health Academy were “colder” and “more businesslike” than in Belgium - where he has spent the past two years on loan.

Despite being offered the chance to stake a claim for first team place at his parent club, Coulibaly was also quoted as saying he ‘regretted’ the fact United are apparently stalling on allowing him to join AA Gent; one of several teams the Malian claims are interested in acquiring his services.

Although he has yet to publicly address Coulibaly’s comments, it would be a major surprise if manager Paul Heckingbottom did not want to speak with the youngster and his representative about the comments.

“Almost all of Belgium’s top clubs have inquired with my broker,” Coulibaly said, during an interview published earlier this week. “AA Gent is very concrete, but Sheffield United are apparently holding off. I regret that.”

The favoured trick

Ismaila Coulibaly spoke to the media in Belgium earlier this week, after rejoining Sheffield United

Coulibaly has since claimed the true meaning of his words were lost in translation. Other tricks favoured by footballers who cause a stir following interviews with overseas publications include blaming the journalist for misquoting them or not grasping conversational nuances.

Given the majority of Belgian nationals are fluent in French - the official language of Coulibaly’s homeland - that seems unlikely in this case. Heckingbottom and his assistants are probably minded to be charitable; particularly given the youngster has had precious little contact with Bramall Lane since being signed from Sarpsborg two seasons ago. But whatever the truth of the situation, even though people at United are a pretty generous bunch, Coulibaly must be left in no doubt that even raising the possibility of leaving South Yorkshire is not the best way to make friends or influence people. Either inside the dressing room or on the terraces, where many supporters had been excited about the prospect of finally seeing him in the flesh during United’s warm-up fixtures ahead of the forthcoming Championship campaign.

Expect Coulibaly to now be kept well away from the media when Heckingbottom’s squad travel to Portugal for warm weather training next week. Or, depending on how he performs in the meantime, rolled-out to try and repair some of the damage his words have caused whilst being carefully marshalled by United officials. Past experience suggests there won’t be any in-between although, given that English is not his mother tongue, that could be a risky strategy.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom (right) with his assistant Stuart McCall (left) and head of player development Jack Lester: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

The challenges

The awkward situation Coulibaly now finds himself in, however, does highlight some of the problems players face when sent-out on loan term loans. Recalled 12 months ahead of schedule following Beerschot’s relegation, which threatened to complicate his work permit situation post-Brexit, Coulibaly is bound to feel more emotionally attached to the Olympisch Stadion than Bramall Lane.

Despite always being a United player, he has spent around only one week out of a possible 92 there following his switch from Norway. The decision to immediately park him with Beerschot - one of five teams operating under the United World banner - was the first tangible piece of evidence that owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulziz Al Saud and his associates wanted to encourage greater collaboration between its members. Henry Mauriss, who has tabled a £115m offer for United, plans to strip them out of the UW network.

Sheffield United midfielders John Fleck (right) and Ben Osborn (centre) both feature in Paul Heckingbottom's plans for next term: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

But it was noticeable, after seeing the American’s bid become entangled in red tape, its chief executive Abdullah Alghamdi used an event designed to mark the launch of a new group-wide kit deal to outline the organisation’s hopes and ambitions for United, Beershot and their counterparts from France, Dubai and India.

The tasks ahead

Two challenges now face Heckingbottom regarding Coulibaly. The first - and potentially the easiest - is to gauge whether or not he is good enough to challenge for a position within his starting eleven. The second, which could be less straightforward, is making him feel engaged with United.

After observing Coulibaly in action earlier this year, Heckingbottom seemingly reserved judgement on the 21-year-old’s prospects when questioned on the matter afterwards. The fact he is now working with United suggests the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief believes Coulibaly brings something to the table. Heckingbottom’s objective now is to discover exactly what. And whether or not it complements the qualities the likes of Oliver Norwood, John Fleck and maybe even Sander Berge possess - although the latter’s representatives are trying to engineer their client’ exit following United’s defeat in last term’s play-off semi-finals.

“We’re looking forward to getting him in and, if everything goes according to plan, then he’ll be in the friendlies,” Heckingbottom said recently, when questioned about Coulibaly’s prospects. “The only way we will get him anywhere near our team is if he is good enough, and he’ll show that by playing.”

Isamaila Cheikh Coulibaly in action for Beerschot: JOHAN EYCKENS/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

Coulibaly made 42 appearances for Beerschot, scoring five goals in the process. However, all of those efforts came the season before last, with an injury later curbing his progress.

“He’ll find pre-season tough but he’ll get the benefit of that and we want him to experience it,” Heckingbottom added. “He’s our player after all.”