Sheffield United: The big risk Paul Heckingbottom is now prepared to take

Paul Heckingbottom has admitted Sheffield United could soon be forced to gamble with the fitness of some of their leading names in order to give themselves the best possible chance of qualifying for the play-offs.

Tuesday, 12th April 2022, 2:30 pm

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Although Heckingbottom’s side are preparing for Friday’s game against Reading ranked sixth in the Championship table, level on points with fifth-placed Luton Town, the fact they are only four ahead of Millwall in ninth with five matches remaining means reaching the end-of-term knockouts is still far from assured.

Having seen his squad savaged by injuries earlier this year, Heckingbottom has since seen some of his most influential performers return to action in recent weeks; including Republic of Ireland defender Enda Stevens and Scotland centre-forward Oli McBurnie.

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But others are still fighting to overcome issues, with captain Billy Sharp missing United’s last three outings and Chris Basham absent since being diagnosed with ligament damage towards the end of February.

Admitting United had erred on the side of caution with Stevens as he battled to overcome a calf complaint, Heckingbottom told The Star that safety-first policy could soon be reversed providing the footballers concerned consent to the change.

“Some of the injuries, with people like Enda for example, we took a little bit more time with,” the United manager said. “Rhys (Norrington-Davies) was fit and doing really well, so we could afford to give him (Stevens) more time.

Sheffield United hope their captain Billy Sharp is close to a return to action: Ashley Crowden / Sportimage

“That might be different when it becomes ‘needs-must’ though, yes.”

Despite the proposed shift in thinking, Heckingbottom confirmed certain problems would always be exempt. United, the 44-year-old suggested, might only decide to accelerate a rehabilitation programme if the footballer in question is battling to improve their cardiovascular conditioning after being cleared for action by the club’s medical consultants.

“In my mind, when it’s a muscle injury for example,” Heckingbottom continued, “You can’t mess around with those because you can make the problem a whole lot worse. Damage that isn’t that serious can suddenly become very serious if you don’t get the timing right. Then, it becomes a very bad decision to bring people back (early). That’s something, for their sake as much as anything, it wouldn’t be right to do.

“But there might be situations, if it becomes ‘needs must’ now like I say, where we have to consider it because of where we are in the season.”

Enda Stevens of Sheffield United and the Republic of Ireland: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Speaking before United’s goalless draw with AFC Bournemouth last weekend, Heckingbottom acknowledged that “Billy will tell you he’s fit and ready to go out there now if you asked him” when questioned on Sharp’s progress.

Following the fixture, which saw United denied what appeared to be a clear cut penalty when Nat Phillips felled Morgan Gibbs-White in the penalty area, Heckingbottom insisted he expected his leading goalscorer to be cleared for action following Easter Monday’s trip to Bristol City after being treated for a hamstring problem.

Basham has also reportedly stepped-up his training regime of late although, speaking during his most recent media briefing, Heckingbottom acknowledged the centre-half had yet to take part in a full squad session.

Paul Heckingbottom, the Sheffield United manager: Cameron Smith/Getty Images

“I accept, in some cases, there’s a balance between trying to make sure people could be okay for the play-offs and also making sure we get there in the first place,” Heckingbottom said. “I understand the point, yes.”