Sheffield United: To play or not to play? The big Billy Sharp dilemma

By his own admission, Paul Heckingbottom has been deliberately opaque when discussing Sheffield United’s fitness issues in recent weeks.

Thursday, 21st April 2022, 4:30 pm

As this season’s battle for play-off qualification approaches its climax, the manager’s updates are becoming even more incomprehensible. Squad members supposedly on the verge of recovering from reportedly minor injuries remain perpetually on the cusp of a return to first team action. Others, such as defender Chris Basham, are declared a week or so away from being available for selection only to appear on the team sheet days later. It is a tactic, Heckingbottom confessed towards the end of last month, designed to spread confusion among United’s rivals for a top six finish and prevent opposition counterparts from second-guessing his selections.

Occasionally, however, it is possible to peer through the fog of disinformation and ascertain exactly what is going on. One such occasion came ahead of tomorrow’s game against Cardiff City when, following Easter Monday’s draw with Bristol City at Ashton Gate, Heckingbottom acknowledged their captain Billy Sharp would have taken part in the contest after telling coaching staff his damaged hamstring has now healed. The fact the 36-year-old didn’t, and was forced to watch United miss a hatful of openings before inevitably falling behind, confirms those tasked with overseeing his rehabilitation thought otherwise.

Now, with three fixtures remaining on the regular season schedule, it appears Sharp and the medics are finally on the same page.

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“Bill joined in,” Heckingbottom said this lunchtime, revealing Sharp had resumed full training earlier that morning. “So that’s good news. For him and us.”

Sixth in the table, a point ahead of seventh placed Millwall and three above Blackburn Rovers and Middlesbrough ranked eighth and ninth respectively, United are on course to earn themselves a crack at the Premier League. But a worrying pattern has emerged since Sharp limped-out of their win over Barnsley before the international break. Chances are still being created. Indeed, other than when Chris Wilder’s men were swept aside a month-and-a-half ago, United’s ‘XG’ rating following Championship games has often been higher during the five games Sharp has missed compared to the five before he was ruled-out. The trouble is, as a wealth of statistical and empirical evidence confirms, they aren’t being taken. Which, unless he is in danger of suffering seriously debilitating complications, makes the case to take a gamble on his conditioning increasingly compelling. Particularly as Oli McBurnie, who despite a long barren run retains the coaching staff’s trust, now appears to be out for the foreseeable after breaking bones in a foot and Rhian Brewster is recovering from an operation.

“It’s great to see Bill back out there,” Heckingbottom said, predicting George Baldock will also be ready to face Steve Morison’s men. “When you look at where we are and where we want to be going, we need big players to do that. Billy is. But Oli is another big player for us.”

“He’s got fractures in his foot,” Heckingbottom continued, providing the type of detailed diagnosis he usually reserves whenever someone is going to be out for a significant period of time. “We’ll look into that to see if it needs surgery or if it needs treating more conservatively. It’s a blow for us and a blow for Oli, because people don’t see the work we are doing with him and how much he’s been putting in.”

Billy Sharp was on target during Sheffield United's win over cardiff City earlier this season: Ashley Crowden / Sportimage

Other than new signing Filip Uremovic and Morgan Gibbs-White, whose effort against City got United out of the cart, Sharp is probably the only player at Heckingbottom’s disposal whose stock has risen in recent weeks. Without, unlike the other two, actually kicking a ball. If there was any doubt about his continued importance to the United cause, even though he is still responsible for a quarter of their goals in the competition this term, the sight of opportunities going begging against Stoke City, AFC Bournemouth, Reading and of course City should extinguish them. Even the victory over Queens Park Rangers, the only success United have registered while Sharp has been undergoing treatment, was narrower and more tense than it should have been.

United have registered more attempts (57/51) on goal during the assignments Sharp has missed. But significantly fewer (13/21) have been on target.

“We want people to be getting in the right areas,” Heckingbottom said, before confessing: “Sometimes, a lot of the shouting we’ve been doing, is when we’ve not had enough of them in and around the box.”

Sharp is unlikely to be in a position to complete 90 minutes against opponents ranked 18th in the table and hoping to avoid a third straight loss. But with teenagers Will Osula and Daniel Jebbison the only recognised strikers now at his disposal, Heckingbottom must give serious consideration to starting Sharp and then withdrawing him during the closing stages rather than bringing him on when United are potentially chasing a result.

Oli McBurnie is in danger of missing the rest of Sheffield United's season: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

Osula, a Denmark youth international, now appears to be ahead of his fellow 18-year-old in the pecking order after featuring as a substitute against City. Both are superb talents with bright futures. But Osula has been more proactive than Jebbison lately, with the latter reacting to situations instead of trying to shape them.

“It creates opportunities for others, the fitness problems,” Heckingbottom said. “And careers are made off the back of opportunities. It’s pointless moaning about what we’ve not got. We’ve got some good players and someone can be a hero.”

Heckingbottom is right. Nevertheless Sharp, who claimed two of the eight goals United netted in their final quintet of assignments before he succumbed to injury, appears best placed to perform that role. United, it must be remembered, have grabbed only three in their five since.

“The sensible thing will be to manage him in terms of minutes,” Heckingbottom said, explaining the dilemma United are facing. “He’s fit enough to get through. With muscle injuries, though, you're always wary.”

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom has a tough choice to make about Billy Sharp's role against Cardiff City: Darren Staples / Sportimage
Sheffield United captain Billy Sharp injured a hamstring against Barnsley: Darren Staples / Sportimage