Sheffield United v Burnley - Blades eager to avoid unwanted record

A PROUD man who is leading a proud team, Sheffield United interim manager Paul Heckingbottom does not want one particular blemish on his CV to be there for all to see by 6pm tomorrow.

Sheffield United striker Daniel Jebbison. Picture: Darren Staples / Sportimage

It has been a long, hard season for everyone connected with the Blades. Mercifully, it comes to an end this weekend, but there is the potential for one more painful, final cut.

Should United lose to Burnley, they will make Premier League history by becoming the first side to lose 30 league games in a season after equalling the record set by Derby (2007-08), Sunderland (2005-06) and Ipswich – although the latter were competing in a 42-game season in 1994-95.

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For a group of players who have competed for much of this season, while palpably lacking the quality to post more points at times, it would be undeserved.

Sheffield United duo David McGoldrick and Paul Heckingbottom. Picture: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

The fact that United have lost 17 league matches by a single goal margin backs up that argument.

There have been several worse top-flight sides, for sure.

Avoiding that particular milestone represents one of several motivations this afternoon.

Heckingbottom, who took caretaker charge in March, would hardly be blamed if it happened. But there is also an element of being tainted by association.

On it being an incentive, the 43-year-old, set to take temporary charge for a final time, said: “Of course, it is. We can’t go in there with any fear about statistics and things like that, it is pointless.

“The only one that matters is the goals. Everyone loves ‘stats’. There was an interviewer after the game the other day – and I don’t think he had watched the game as he was just throwing stats at me... It would be nice to talk about football sometimes and people to show a bit of knowledge about the subject they are quizzing people on.

“The stat that matters is the goals. 1-0, 2-1 or whatever and we will take any win. That has to be the focus, rather than avoiding things.”

Positive points this season have been thin on the ground in a soulless, sterile 2020-21 season.

Victories at Old Trafford and Goodison Park were two rare ones in isolation, while the performances of David McGoldrick have been a beacon of consistency in a largely barren landscape.

The promotion of several youngsters – most notably Daniel Jebbison who created history of the pleasurable variety at Everton on Sunday when he became the youngest player to score on his first Premier League start at the age of 17 years and 309 days – has also provided some succour.

Earlier, Antwoine Hackford became the youngest Blades player to feature in the top flight at the age of 16 in the game at Crystal Palace on January – while fellow academy graduates Kyron Gordon, Zak Brunt, Harry Boyes and Femi Seriki have been rewarded for their progress with inclusion on the bench in recent times.

It has provided hope for the club’s emerging talents for the future, but Heckingbottom, expected to revert to his Under-23 role when the club appoints a new fill-time manager, provides a caveat.

He said: “It is two-fold. It will be up to them in how big a role they play in impressing the (new) manager. For me, you always have to keep improving and I have (also) said this to the first-team boys.

“It does not matter how old you are, you can always get better and that is the attitude you must have. You have to push and push. If you stand still, someone will come and take your place.

“Experience is great and it can help you in lots of games; in Premier League situations and playing in front of different personnel. But the hunger of young players sometimes outshines that if they are good enough.

“That is what we will be telling these players, that they have to go take a shirt. It won’t be given to them and the first-team players won’t allow them to do that. This is the most difficult part of it.

“They are still young players and we need to make sure they are doing in the right direction. Whether that is with us and just below the first team where we kept managing them and getting them involved in the first team.

“If they make that jump, fantastic that’s what we all want or it may be they need to go on loan.”

The sight of some Unitedites at Bramall Lane will also provide another welcome sight tomorrow. Plenty has changed since they were last in attendance in a near full-house when the Blades beat Norwich 1-0 on March 7, 2020.

A goal from Billy Sharp moved United up to sixth. And then the world changed, with the absence of fans being one reason in the tortuous descent of the Blades.

Heckingbottom said: “We are, without doubt, one of the teams who’ve suffered. I remember watching the (Manchester) City game and Oli McBurnie flattened (Ruben) Dias early. Bramall Lane would have gone up and the atmosphere would’ve been electric. Everyone would have loved it.

“Instead, there was a squeal from Dias and a yellow card for Oli and the game was flat again.

“The edge and little bit of advantage that fans would give us and how we have wanted to perform, we have not been able to do it. It has certainly made it more difficult for the players.”

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