Why Enda Stevens' return from injury can hand Sheffield United another boost in promotion push
Finding positives from disappointment is one of the most well-worn cliché from football’s book full of them, but Enda Stevens’ return from injury was undoubtedly one of a few high points from Tuesday evening’s cup shootout exit at the hands of Southampton.
Not just for the Republic of Ireland international’s opening goal, which put the Blades ahead on their way to a 2-2 draw in 90 minutes against the Premier League side. Nor just the fact that he played the entire game, his first since May, after undergoing surgery on a double hernia.
Stevens’ comeback also greatly strengthens the Blades in a position they were arguably weakest while he was out, with Max Lowe being loaned to Nottingham Forest and Ben Osborn utilised higher up the pitch to good effect.
Rhys Norrington-Davies has been steady enough, if not consistently spectacular, down the left after returning to Bramall Lane in the summer and in mitigation, is still a young man looking to perfect his craft. He has also not been helped by a stream of changes around him from game to game – playing alongside Jack Robinson or Ben Davies, John Fleck or Conor Hourihane, Osborn or, say, Luke Freeman – and has performed admirably in the circumstances.
But Stevens’ return on Tuesday offered a glimpse of what the Blades have been missing. There was the tactical foul on the speedy Nathan Tella when he had attempted a give-and-go to get around the back of Stevens. While Norrington-Davies has been found guilty in recent weeks of getting the wrong side of his man, and consequently having to bring him down and pick up a booking, Stevens showed the nous to not let the situation get that far.
And there was the offensive instinct to get into the box and get on the end of fellow wing-back Jayden Bogle’s cross against Southampton. Norrington-Davies is not a man afraid to get forward on the whole either, but has at times appeared a little slow to get forward and support his forwards – leading to Freeman’s frustration against Preston when he looked for his teammate on the overlap in a promising position, and had to turn inside.
Highlighting such instances is no criticism of Norrington-Davies, a man almost a decade Stevens’ junior who obviously has the ability and qualities to make the left-back spot his own at United for as long as he wants it. But the return of quality competition in Stevens, a man so instrumental in promotion when United were last in this division, can be no bad thing, especially as the Blades prepare for the latest Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday leg of the marathon that is Championship football.
It's understood that the hernia issue finally cleared up with the recent operation has been troubling Stevens for some time, which may go some way towards explaining why his form took a similar nosedive to United’s in the second Premier League season. But at his peak, he is a formidable threat down the left wing and even if Stevens doesn’t come back into the side, don’t underestimate the effect his mere presence can have.
Both as a mentor for Norrington-Davies and a way of keeping him on his toes. On the right flank, George Baldock will know he can’t afford to let his standards slip with Jayden Bogle breathing down his neck. To borrow that other cliché, Stevens can be “like a new signing” after coming back from injury – and such competition can only surely be good for the Blades in the long run.