Sheffield United tell Daniel Jebbison now is the time to shine amid Iliman Ndiaye doubts

With Sheffield United already short of attacking options, even before Reda Khadra’s loan was terminated and Iliman Ndiaye hobbled out of their last Championship game, Daniel Jebbison has been challenged to prove he is capable of spearheading the club’s push for automatic promotion.
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Although Paul Heckingbottom’s side sit second in the table and boast an 11 point lead over their third-placed rivals, the potential loss of Ndiaye for Friday’s game against Hull City serves as a reminder why United’s manager still refuses to contemplate a return to the highest level. Instead, whenever the prospect is raised by journalists during his dealings with the media, Heckingbottom simply apologises for “being boring” and reminds there “will be plenty of twists and turns” between now and the campaign.

The possible absence of Ndiaye threatens to be one of those moments, even if United are only briefly prevented from selecting their most influential player. Having scored 10 goals this term and created seven others, the Senegal international has been directly involved in more than a third of the 49 efforts Heckingbottom’s men have converted since August and is almost irreplaceable. But another exciting young player, United’s teenage centre-forward Jebbison could be the man handed this excruciatingly difficult task after impressing with his performances of late.

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“Daniel is tough and combative,” Heckingbottom told The Star, reflecting upon the teenager’s substitute performance against Stoke City, when he was brought on for Ndiaye during the closing stages. “That’s what makes him stand out, those qualities. He’ll get even more quicker and even more powerful too. If he can use those attributes to the best of his ability, combined with the other ones he’s got, then he can go a long way, definitely.”

Heckingbottom has always been convinced of Jebbison’s potential, having awarded him his full Premier League debut towards the end of a spell in caretaker charge two seasons ago. Jebbison repaid that faith by claiming the match-winner, writing his name into the record books by becoming the youngest player ever to find the back of their net on their first top-flight start. But Heckingbottom is also impatient and, after dispatching him on loan to Burton Albion to study under Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, wants Jebbison to show he is worthy of being handed greater responsibility now.

“Jebbo knows what I think of him,” he said. “If I didn’t think that then he wouldn’t be involved because, as much as we will give people opportunities and want to bring them through, those opportunities will only come about if they show they’re good enough and ready. There’s no favours handed out.”

Sheffield United youngster Daniel Jebbison proves a handful for former Blades defender Phil Jagielka, now of Stoke City: Lexy Ilsley / SportimageSheffield United youngster Daniel Jebbison proves a handful for former Blades defender Phil Jagielka, now of Stoke City: Lexy Ilsley / Sportimage
Sheffield United youngster Daniel Jebbison proves a handful for former Blades defender Phil Jagielka, now of Stoke City: Lexy Ilsley / Sportimage

“I want Daniel to be doing it now, right now,” Heckingbottom continued. “We want to see it today.

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“I know that’s not always going to be possible but, ideally, that’s what we want.”

With Ndiaye’s involvement against City shrouded in doubt and the assurance that Heckingbottom would be allowed to replace Khadra seemingly plated with pig iron rather than copper, Jebbison’s recent resurgence could not have been better timed for a United squad which, despite its lead over Watford, is still wary of the chasing pack. On target during their FA Cup win over Millwall, the England under-20 international also caught the eye after being brought on against Alex Neil’s men when Ndiaye, whose strike laid the foundations for a 3-1 victory, limped-out of the contest. Direct and willing to engage physically with defenders, getting the better of Harry Souttar in one duel which could easily have led to the centre-half’s dismissal, Jebbison’s stature makes him useful at the opposite end of the pitch too.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom wants Daniel Jebbison to shine: Andrew Yates / SportimageSheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom wants Daniel Jebbison to shine: Andrew Yates / Sportimage
Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom wants Daniel Jebbison to shine: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

Still, if Ndiaye is forced to sit out the clash with the visitors from East Yorkshire, it leaves Heckingbottom with a big problem. Not because Jebbison isn’t a handful in his own right. He is. Rather, the academy graduate’s skill set appears to make him a direct replacement or competitor for Oli McBurnie, now grappling with a fitness issue of his own, instead of the more maverick Ndiaye. If he wants his frontline to retain the same dynamic, Heckingbottom must devise a solution to this conundrum. Or, alternatively, attempt to introduce a fresh one at a pivotal stage of United’s bid to regain membership of English football’s most exclusive club.

Khadra, who was placed with Birmingham City after returning to Brighton and Hove Albion, was almost certainly signed to provide insurance for Ndiaye. Which explains, coupled with the fact United’s coaching staff were preparing for life without Sander Berge last summer only for the Norwegian to remain in situ, the lack of opportunities he was granted in South Yorkshire. Will Osula was recalled from a loan spell at Derby County when it became apparent Khadra would be leaving. But Heckingbottom is reluctant to select Jebbison’s close friend and fellow teenager until discovering if he will be allowed to enter the transfer market. Because, if Osula features for United, then he will be ineligible for a temporary move elsewhere and coaching staff clearly feel regular action is required to accelerate his development.

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Jebbison has only featured alongside Billy Sharp, the man he is most likely to partner against City if Ndiaye is declared unavailable, eight times in his career. And their playing time together is better measured in minutes rather than hours. With former United centre-forward Carl Asaba recently explaining how Ndiaye and McBurnie bring the best out of each other because of their complementing qualities, it would be a surprise if much of Heckingbottom’s work during training this week does not revolve around trying to ensure Jebbison and Sharp understand their respective games. That is if the knock Ndiaye sustained is more serious than United initially hoped, with Heckingbottom revealing he was prepared to “carry on” against Stoke until psychotherapists intervened.

“Nothing is ever easy,” Heckingbottom said. “You’ve got to be prepared for everything.”