United were 2-1 down at Leeds on Saturday when they won a free-kick in a decent position. John Lundstram took it, but the first Leeds defender cleared easily. Raphinha’s first touch was poor as he looked to latch on to the loose ball, allowing Lundstram a chance to win it back.
It wasn’t so much his attempted flick that proved the final straw for many Sheffield United fans.
The United midfielder tried a sort of backheel under pressure from Raphinha, but lost sight of the ball in the air. When he found his bearings, a dangle of the left leg wasn’t enough to stop Stuart Dallas sending Raphina clear down the left.
What happened next proved the final straw for many Sheffield United fans.
With Leeds breaking at their customary pace, and John Fleck losing his footing, they had a three-on-two situation. Lundstram was the nearest Blades player to the ball and Raphinha; Ben Osborn and Rhian Brewster were racing back to cover.
Ethan Ampadu, the United defender, was in the Leeds area when the free-kick came in and by the time Raphinha raced clear, was at least 15 yards further up the pitch than Lundstram. Within three seconds, he had caught his teammate up and a few moments later was in a position to almost cut out the Brazilian’s cross, which Stuart Dallas put narrowly wide.
By that point, Lundstram had just about reached the edge of the United penalty area.
Neither Ampadu nor Lundstram is expected to still be at Bramall Lane next season. The defender is on loan from Chelsea and has a contract until 2023, while Lundstram’s deal is up in the summer and will walk away for free.
But in those few seconds of the second half, as Leeds searched for a third goal that would have killed the contest, their contrasting approaches were laid bare.
In mitigation Ampadu may have been fresher, having come off the bench. United’s midfield three had a difficult afternoon physically, trying to keep pace with Marcelo Bielsa’s rapid players who can run all day and still seemingly have plenty in the tank.
But, for many Blades already exasperated with the midfielder, it was the final straw.
Many of them have always had an uneasy relationship with Lundstram, a man who suffered for simply not being Paul Coutts when he was parachuted in to the United midfield after the Scot’s injury and expected to hit the ground running.
It wasn’t until last season, after United’s promotion to the Premier League, that United seemed to finally find a role for the Liverpudlian, who finished the campaign with five goals from midfield as United finished ninth.
As much as United’s supporters don’t believe it, the 27-year-old has many attributes to shine at the top level. Powerful of physique and certainly no slouch, with an eye for goal and a weaker foot so strong that Alan Knill once admitted it’s difficult to know which one is his preferred.
There is no blame attached here to Lundstram for deciding to turn down United’s contract offer and take his chances of finding a better deal elsewhere. It is a gamble that looks likely to pay off, considering he will probably be one of a small group of current Blades that will remain in the Premier League next season while most of his teammates prepare themselves for life back in the Championship.
Lundstram did not grow up playing football on the streets of Sheffield, dreaming of one day pulling on that red and white shirt. It is a job for him and in a career so short, an industry so volatile, his next move will probably set him up for life.
But he remains a United employee until that contract expires and only Lundstram himself knows if he is giving everything for the club that currently pays his wages. Despite that, many have made their mind up already that he is not.
There are no winners in this situation and for that reason, the time has surely come to leave him out of the side for the eight remaining games in United’s latest, short Premier League adventure. Otherwise, the same conversations will dominate the fall-out of Sunday’s clash with Arsenal, and every game after that.
In temporary boss Paul Heckingbottom’s defence here, his hand has been forced somewhat on that issue. If, say, Sander Berge was fully fit, Lundstram would be on the bench and the fans’ anger and frustration would be channelled somewhere else.
But would giving, say, Zak Brunt a chance now cause that much harm? Would a bit of exposure to Premier League football do him more good than harm, ahead of next season in the Championship? A product of the youth academy playing in the Premier League is the stuff of dreams, and it isn’t a free pass either. Brunt has been in excellent form for United’s U23s this season and will surely be free of any fear. It’s hardly sink or swim time; United are all-but down and if he is put in the team, no-one will be pointing the finger at Brunt when the inevitable happens.
Even if just for a short-term solution what about Ampadu, a versatile player who has played in midfield for United this season? Playing Ben Osborn AND John Fleck either side of Ollie Norwood? A change of shape to avoid having to play three in the middle?
There are many questions but only one real certainty; that persisting with Lundstram is not the answer.