Sheffield United: Yes, Rhian Brewster must improve but the former Liverpool striker has also been let down badly
Is the Oli McBurnie that returns to Barnsley this weekend a happier player than the one who left?
Probably not if the truth be told. The longer he stays at Sheffield United, the more time he seems to be spending on the bench.
But is McBurnie now a better centre-forward than when he scored nine goals in 17 Championship appearances during a spell on loan with Sunday’s opponents, including one against the team he would later join in a £20m deal from Swansea City? The answer, almost certainly, is yes. After all, the lad now has 59 more Premier League appearances under his belt and will have learnt plenty from competing against the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham. Oh, and getting the better of their defences too, when United were a properly functioning top-flight outfit before poor form and a power struggle between the boardroom and the boot room ensured last season became a car crash of epic proportions.
McBurnie’s fellow centre-forward, the young Rhian Brewster, became part of the collateral damage when he arrived at Bramall Lane 12 months ago. United were already tanking when they paid a club record fee to acquire his services. That £23.5m price tag, coupled with a glowing reference written by none other than Jurgen Klopp, ensured he was inevitably portrayed as the saviour of a side which had just suffered three back to back top-flight defeats and, its confidence already draining, already looked like it would struggle to hit a morbidly obese cow’s behind with a stringed instrument.
Broad shoulders needed by Rhian Brewster
I remember writing at the time that Brewster would need bloody broad shoulders to carry the weight of expectation which was about to be placed on them. Not surprisingly, for someone still making their way in the game, he didn’t and he travels to Oakwell on Sunday out of luck, the starting eleven and drained of confidence. Assuming that is, he even makes the squad after being left out of Slavisa Jokanovic’s plans altogether for recent games against Stoke City and Millwall.
Still, it was encouraging to hear the Serb, who inherited the problem of ‘How to revive Rhian’ when he took charge of United last summer, rule-out the possibility of loaning the lad out during a chat with journalists ahead of the controversial defeat by the visitors from south London.
Brewster must accept some of the responsibility for the predicament he finds himself in after scoring only once in 38 appearances. Not perform one of modern football’s increasingly popular tricks which is to blame everyone but yourself.
Brewster was always doomed to struggle at Sheffield United
However, the more you analyse Brewster’s career in South Yorkshire, the more you begin to suspect he was always doomed to struggle. In fact, United’s handling of him, particularly when it became clear they were destined to be relegated, has been torn straight out of the ‘Things you mustn’t do when trying to develop talent’ playbook. And yes, Brewster is a talent. Otherwise he wouldn’t have played for Klopp, helped England win the under-17 World Cup four years ago or been capped 15 times by the Young Lions.
Perhaps the shabbiest and, given the scale of the investment they made in him, utterly perplexing episode in this excruciating tale was the attempt by some folk to use Brewster as a pawn in their political battle with Jokanovic’s predecessor Chris Wilder. Already struggling, the 21-year-old didn’t deserve to see his name shoehorned into private briefings about United’s financial situation and transfer strategy. Or used, pretty clumsily, to make oblique references towards the armwrestle during on the record interviews.
Yes, he’s earning a proper man’s wage. But how did those doing so think this would help? It was, quite frankly, a terrible way to treat an employee.
On reflection, Wilder probably should have played Brewster on a more regular basis. But little wonder he now looks lost and devoid of self-belief if that’s the support he was getting from even higher.
There’s also been suggestions, backed by pretty substantial evidence, that United’s style of play has never really suited his strengths. Brewster’s strikes, during a prolific spell with Swansea City before his switch to United, were all pretty much of a muchness - first time finishes following quick build-ups. Still, as McBurnie demonstrated when he was required to become a targetman, sometimes you have to make sacrifices and adapt.
Letting Brewster go on loan would be an admission of defeat
What Brewster needs right now, with Jokanovic expected to take United straight back up, is the one thing he can’t afford to give him. And that is a run of 10 or so games, regardless of performances, to clear his head and rediscover the trust in his own ability.
That won’t happen. Indeed, with United 17th in the table, it can’t happen. Unless injuries force the manager’s hand.
I get the argument that temporarily placing Brewster with a rival might provide the fresh start he so clearly needs. But even if they did and he scored 20 goals in 15 outings for, say, Peterborough it wouldn’t exorcise the ghosts of the past season and a bit when he eventually returned to United. They’d still be there.
Loaning Brewster out would, given everything that’s gone on, be an admission of defeat. Confirmation that United no longer expect him to achieve anything in a red and white shirt.
Given that Brewster’s value will also have plummeted, Jokanovic is right to persevere.
Things might eventually click. Or that could never happen. But if he really does believe Brewster is “one of the most talented young players in England” then allowing him to depart - even temporarily - would serve no purpose. In fact, it would only park a problem that United - and Brewster - really need to solve.