Sheffield United: The unsung heroes of unbeaten run are revealed ahead of Hull City's visit

The professionalism of John Fleck and Sander Berge has enabled Sheffield United to negotiate their way through the first phase of a critical run of games in the battle for promotion, manager Paul Heckingbottom has insisted.

Monday, 14th February 2022, 2:09 pm
Updated Monday, 14th February 2022, 2:09 pm

After seeing their fixture schedule wrecked by a series of postponements over Christmas and New Year, United play the first of three rearranged games when Hull City visit Bramall Lane tomorrow night.

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With another - against fellow top-flight hopefuls Middlesbrough also looming on the horizon - Heckingbottom’s team will have appeared nine times in the space of less than five weeks by the time Chris Wilder’s side travel to South Yorkshire at the beginning of next month.

United have rotated their starting eleven on a regular basis since the festive period, with Fleck and Berge selected for Saturday’s trip to Huddersfield Town. But Oliver Norwood and Conor Hourihane, the men they replaced at the John Smith’s Stadium, could return against City as Heckingbottom attempts to strike a balance between maintaining momentum and injury prevention.

“We wouldn’t be changing things around if the players weren’t performing and showing they weren’t ready to play,” he said. “There’s no necessity to do it. There’s no formula to it. We don’t want to stretch people too far and have it come back to hurt us further down the line if there’s no need.

“That’s the value of having a squad that’s all in it together.”

Sheffield United's John Fleck in action at Huddersfield Town: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

United finished the weekend in eighth, three points behind Boro, after their trip to Town ended in stalemate. The result means they will enter the meeting with City unbeaten in six, with four of those outings ending in victory.

Although United’s attacking options have been depleted by the loss of Rhian Brewster (hamstring) and David McGoldrick (thigh), Heckingbottom has myriad choices in midfield and defence, where centre-half Charlie Goode has yet to feature since arriving on loan from Brentford. Although wing-back Enda Stevens still has a number of hurdles to overcome as he recovers from a calf complaint - “It’s taking a little bit longer that we initially thought” - Heckingbottom revealed Ben Osborn is making progress in his own battle for fitness. “It shouldn’t be too long until he’s back out there, so that’s another good option for us.”

Together with his assistant Stuart McCall and head of player development Jack Lester, Heckingbottom will reach a final decision on United’s personnel and strategy for the clash with City after studying the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses.

Conor Hourihane of Sheffield United (right) and Alex Mowatt of West Bromwich Albion battle for the ball during the Sky Bet Championship match at Bramall Lane, Sheffield last week: Isaac Parkin / Sportimage

After winning his first match at the helm, Shota Averladze has lost all three since. Former United youngsters Regan Slater and Tyler Smith both featured during the 1-0 defeat by Fulham two days ago.

“Conor and Oliver, they bring a real voice and communication,” Heckingbottom said. “That’s a side of the game that sometimes people don’t notice. They haven’t lost together yet and that’s the only reason why Flecky and Sander, both brilliant players in their own right, haven’t been out there as much as perhaps they would have liked. But they are pushing and showing they can play.”

“We want all of these players to be fit, healthy and fighting,” Heckingbottom added. “We want them ready to go. Then it’s about making good decisions at the right time.”

Sander Berge started for Sheffield United at Huddersfield Town and will be hoping to do the same against Hull City: Simon Bellis / Sportimage