Sheffield United: Missing out on the 'Steal of the Century' leaves a stale smell following defeat at Derby

Earlier this month, visitors to Bramall Lane might have noticed a tall, vaguely recognisable and powerfully built Twenty-Something being shown around the ground.

Sunday, 16th January 2022, 12:35 pm

His name was John Souttar. And Sheffield United, as manager Paul Heckingbottom attempted to beat Rangers to his signature, were giving the Scotland international the red carpet treatment.

Their invitation, which can be revealed by The Star today, failed to have the desired effect. Having decided to leave Heart of Midlothian, where over the past seven seasons he had developed into one of Britain’s most complete centre-halves, Souttar eventually plumped for Ibrox instead.

His decision, announced 48 hours before United’s defeat by Derby County, provoked a groan of disappointment in the Championship club’s bootroom. Two hundred and fifty miles to the north, where Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side were busy preparing for Tuesday’s visit to Aberdeen, the sound of popping champagne corks reverberated through the corridors of their training complex in Milngavie. After all, as Souttar’s former mentor Craig Levein put it last night, they had just completed “the steal of the century” - reaching a pre-contract agreement with the player, who might still yet leave Tynecastle before the end of the transfer window.

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Events at Pride Park, where United huffed and puffed their way through the contest before succumbing to Tom Lawrence’s second-half brace, revealed why Heckingbottom had been so desperate to acquire Souttar’s services. Not simply because he remains short of defensive options. But also, on the evidence of their performance against Wayne Rooney’s side, United’s squad is in danger of going stale.

With Heckingbottom isolating at home after testing positive for Covid-19, it fell to his assistant Stuart McCall to dissect the contest. By the 57-year-old’s own admission, United lacked punch before the interval and conviction after it, as some woefully negligent “game-management” allowed Lawrence to turn the course of a match which should really have finished goalless.

Sheffield United's players looked dejected after conceding their second goal at Derby County: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Speaking inside the stadium’s spartanly furnished media suite, McCall was right to call for some context during his conversation with journalists. Having seen their Christmas and New Year schedule wrecked by a spate of postponements, this was United’s first Championship outing since December 20. It was also their first defeat in the competition under Heckingbottom, although one of their four straight wins en route to the east Midlands was overseen by his predecessor Slavisa Jokanovic.

“I don’t want to say it, because it gives people an excuse,” McCall acknowledged. “But you can bring the lack of rhythm up.”

The same can be said for United’s activity in the transfer market over the past 12 or so months. Yes, continuity is important. Yes, injury has robbed them of Morgan Gibbs-White. With Iliman Ndiaye still a baby in professional terms, United appear predictable and a little ponderous in the Wolves midfielder’s absence.

Oliver Norwood and John Egan in conversation during Sheffield United's defeat at Pride Park: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

But there is also a reason why the game’s most successful coaches refresh their squads on a regular basis. The statistics might say otherwise. But gut instinct, what your own eyes tell you, is even more important. With only one of those thrust into action against County being hired since the beginning of the season, and nearly half of the starting eleven boasting more than three years of service on their CV’s, United would benefit from an injection of fresh blood. They just feel a little stagnant.

Scotland’s John Souttar has joined Rangers: Ross MacDonald / SNS Group
Sander Berge and Iliman Ndiaye in discussion at Pride Park: Simon Bellis / Sportimage