Dominic Calvert Lewin is pretty much everything the club is looking for in a striker. The only trouble is they sold him, to Sunday’s opponents Everton five years ago.
Watching Calvert-Lewin develop from scrawny young kid into an England international has been a strange experience for those who were involved in brokering the deal which took him to Goodison Park. There is pride, given he learnt the tools of his trade at the Steelphalt Academy. But also plenty of pain, particularly because the £900,000 they supposedly received is a gross exaggeration.
To make matters worse, some sources on Merseyside privately insist United neglected to negotiate a sell-on clause of any significance before sanctioning Calvert-Lewin’s departure. If that is true, and it is disputed by some of those tasked with arranging the transfer, then it could prove to be the most costly mistake in their history. By most people’s reckoning, the youngster is now worth somewhere in the region of £55m.
“We know who their threats are,”said Heckingbottom who, unlike former manager Chris Wilder, was able to talk about his own players more than Calvert-Lewin ahead of a meeting with Everton. “Their systems might change a little bit but they are all related and they are all about getting their best players on the ball.
“We know who they are. Everyone knows who they are. So it comes down to ‘us versus them’ and whether we can stop that happening and then imposing ourselves.”
Despite being undersold, albeit not knowingly, Calvert-Lewin was the right centre-forward at the wrong time for United. Not because he lacked talent. In fairness to the much-maligned Nigel Adkins, he was the first one to spot Calvert-Lewin’s potential, telling anyone who cared to listen “this boy is destined for the top” whenever the opportunity arose. But having just finished mid-table in League One following his breakthrough campaign, United always suspected Calvert-Lewin would be lured away. So, needing the funds to bankroll the recruitment drive which proved the catalyst for the title-win later that term, any fight they put up was purely cosmetic when Everton began sniffing around. As Wilder reminded on countless occasions before vacating his position in March, the here and now was what mattered back then. Now what might happen in the future.
Hindsight, of course, is a wonderful thing and, had United had even an inkling about how quickly Calvert-Lewin would develop, they might have adopted a different stance. Instead, they now find themselves having spent more than £50m acquiring three different attackers and paying them substantial salaries but knowing none is as good or anywhere near as prolific as the guy they once let go. (Admittedly Calvert-Lewin, who has scored more times this term thn United’s entire squad combined, benefits from the type of service David McGoldrick, Oli McBurnie, Lys Mousset and Rhian Brewster can only dream about).
"If we are light then we’ll look at more of the under-23’s and the players we’ve got coming through,” Heckingbottom said, explaining the steps United are taking to ensure there is no repeat of this situation. The squad is thin because of the injuries we’ve got. We’ve had five lads from them training with us this week.
"The easiest way is bringing young players into a team that’s doing well and winning. That’s no problem. Players just have to show the right attitude and be ready for it. Everything will be taken into account and if the players are needed to play, then they’ll play.”
“We might have had more coming through, more involved, but that wasn’t possible,” continued Heckingbottom, stating that Sander Berge, Oli Burke and Ethan Ampadu could all be missing on Merseyside and also against Newcastle and Burnley. “Because of Covid-19, we were working in different bubbles for a long time and that’s why the bench had to be light at times, because we couldn’t bring them up and through.”
As they prepare to return to the Championship, having surrendered their Premier League status two years after reaching the highest level, United should consider the circumstances surrounding Calvert-Lewin’s departure and use them to help design the recovery programme Slavisa Jokanovic, Alexander Blessin, Philippe Clement or Heckingbottom, in caretaker charge since March, will be tasked with implementing.
With Heckingbottom confirming there are no plans to break up a group which, despite its problems this term was still good enough to finish ninth last season, there could be a temptation to cash-in on some of those currently edging through the system rather than their established colleagues. But Calvert-Lewin’s story underlines the importance of taking a broader view. United, with an enhanced parachute payment and two years of PL broadcasting and sponsorship revenues at their disposal, should be in a much better position now to resist approaches for the likes of Iliman Ndiaye, Daniel Jebbison, Zak Brunt and Antwoine Hackford than when Wilder seized the reins from Adkins.
“What happens, that has to be down to the new manager,” Heckingbottom said. “But he’ll want to have a look at everyone, yes, I’m sure.
"Those decisions, though, the have to be taken by the manager. And that will all sort itself out soon enough, and so we just have to focus on what’s in front of us.”