Sheffield United v Bournemouth: Oli McBurnie and Anel Ahmedhodzic must push themselves, as well as their team
It has been a good November for the Blades – a much-needed first win of the season against Wolverhampton Wanderers, a point at Brighton and Hove Albion to lift them off the bottom of the Premier League for the first time since September 23, then Everton's 10-point deduction to nudge them up another place.
At times this season the Blades XI – and more importantly bench – has been a sobering reminder of how under-resourced they have been for the step up in class.
If the lack of proven performers signed in the summer was a worry, a crippling injury list has compounded it. The less raw talent a manager has available, the more character he needs, so losing the likes of McBurnie and Ahmedhodzic – amongst too many others – has been a double whammy.
But never mind McBurnie and Ahmedhodzic pushing their team to greater heights, they need to push themselves to them too.
Look purely at his top-flight goals output – eight in 65 matches – and you would struggle to see striker McBurnie's importance but firstly his manager Paul Heckingbottom thinks he can be much better than that, and secondly the character and leadership he brings is key.
Those who only watch their football in the Premier League might not understand why centre-back Ahmedhodzic has been so badly missed but anyone who saw him in last season's Championship will get it instantly.
Both need to do better and will have Heckingbottom on their backs until they do, but the point is they can. And they return to a side finally getting a bit of confidence that it can compete at this level having previously been flapping about trying desperately to keep their collective head above water.
Whether that confidence can be anything more than fleeting will have a lot to do with the results of the next two matches as the Blades welcome Bournemouth then travel to Burnley – two teams in the mini-league for survival Everton have been dragged back into.
"It's a huge boost, I can't tell you how big a boost when you've been missing big players," says Heckingbottom of their return after injury.
"We've had this (long absentee list) from start to finish and all of a sudden some big clubs get injuries and everyone's talking about injuries. If other people have injuries now and we get the players back, I'll be delighted.
"To have those two back and George (Baldock), who came back a few weeks prior, is big for us, huge for us. I'd love to have everyone fit and have the headache of picking an XI, picking a 19, because it will certainly put us in a better position on a Saturday afternoon."
Now it is up to both to show why their team are so keen to have them back. Important players they might be, but they need to be more important still by upping their games. Heckingbottom will not rest until they do. Probably not then either.
"Oli's someone I've known for a long time," he says of McBurnie. "I signed him at Barnsley, tried to sign him prior to that, I worked with him here at a distance (as under-21s coach) and then worked with him (more closely).
"He said I said I have had to be on him all the time, tough with him, but I think he's a good player, that's why – simple as.
"I think he's still got more to come so I won't leave him alone. I've seen him grow and change as a lad and he's certainly one of our leaders so I want him to lead in the right way.
"Anel is someone I tried to sign a couple of windows before but we couldn't. Up until this last window he's the only (permanent outfield) signing we'd made (£4.5m from Malmo) and one we certainly got right.
"He's another one I think needs pushing, he can get relaxed about certain things but I don't think he's at his level yet, there's a lot more to come. He realises how hard he has to work to get to that next level.
"He's a great age as well (24), he's got the athleticism to play at the top and hopefully we can keep pushing him there."
Whether their manager admits it or not, McBurnie and Ahmedhodzic are two of his favourites. As is his way, another sneaked back into the fold before the international break.
Even for a utility player, Ben Osborn creeps under the radar, miles from being his club's most high-profile or popular player but his 52nd-minute introduction to the midfield at Brighton was crucial in turning a 1-0 scoreline into a 1-1, and not only because it was he Mahmoud Dahoud stamped on to be sent off.
"People talk about his versatility but tactically he gets the game and he's been really good for me personally, whether it's been the last time in the Premier League (when Heckingbottom was caretaker manager in 2021) or in the Championship, he gets the game," says his manager.
"He's been training three, four weeks, more and more minutes, his fitness will get better as he plays more games but as for us or me being worried about him physically with injuries, he's been fine."
Three big players are back at a crucial point in the Blades’ season.