Sheffield United: The important trick The Blades missed during last summer's transfer market
If Sheffield United really were serious about winning promotion this season, rather than simply talking a good game whilst being content to remain in the Championship, then Millwall should have been their first port of call during last summer’s transfer window.
Or the office’s of Jake Cooper’s agent to be absolutely precise after the centre-half, with almost mind-numbing predictability, scored the winning goal against them at The Den on Saturday.
A centre-half by trade, there is something about facing teams from South Yorkshire that brings out the 27-year-old’s predatory instincts. Cooper has netted 17 times since turning professional with Reading. Seven of those efforts, or more than 40 percent, have come during meetings with United, Barnsley or Sheffield Wednesday.
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“Listen, we know he’s a threat,” Paul Heckingbottom, the visitors’ manager admitted, in response to a question about that record. “Whenever there’s a free-kick, he is the target. He’s the focal point whenever they get into those positions.”
After rifling home a late effort when the two teams met at Bramall Lane earlier this term, Cooper has personally cost United four precious points in their battle to regain the Premier League status they surrendered 10 months ago. Four rather than five because, as Heckingbottom insisted following a forgettable encounter in south London, in the grand scheme of things “a draw on the road” wouldn’t have been “such a bad outcome”. Particularly when you consider the injuries United are carrying and workload they have been wrestling with over the past few weeks.
Of course, United are determined to go up. And, despite their set-back in the capital, remain in a good position to challenge for a place in the play-offs with fixtures against fellow contenders Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough next on the agenda. Luton Town, whose win over Stoke City edged United into seventh, face Chris Wilder’s side this weekend.
But Cooper’s second-half header - his fifth career strike in seven appearances against United - did expose one of the difficulties Heckingbottom’s squad faces as it seeks to make an immediate return to the top-flight.
“I still want to win those games, even with the schedule,” Heckingbottom continued, acknowledging United looked mentally and physically fatigued as, despite previously being unbeaten in nine, they laboured through the contest. “That was a reminder that you have to be at it in every game.”
Knowing they faced the prospect of competing once every three days during what has been a brutal February, Heckingbottom’s employers might now consider whether it was wise to gift him only one new face before last month’s transfer deadline. Charlie Goode, recruited on loan from Brentford, missed the trip to Millwall through suspension following his red card against Blackburn Rovers 72 hours earlier. Also ruled-out of United’s next two matches, his absence places further pressure on a group already shorn of David McGoldrick (thigh), Rhian Brewster (hamstring), Chris Basham (knee) and Jayden Bogle (knee).
But context is also important. United were 16th when Heckingbottom was appointed in November. This was only his third defeat in 15 outings, with one of those coming in the FA Cup.
“If you’d have offered us where we are now back then,” he said, “I think everyone would have taken it.”