Sheffield United v Millwall: Challenge set for James McAtee to show he can make top grade

James McAtee has already been served plenty of warning that he can expect some tough love at Sheffield United, and the highly-rated Manchester City loanee is looking forward to it.

The 19-year-old has been sent to Bramall Lane to try and learn the game a bit better, having so far only played a handful of senior minutes from the bench.

Recently it emerged that the Premier League was looking to use the Football League as more of a development league for its players in return for a bigger share of the obscene amounts of cash it hoovers up from broadcasters every year, with rules in place to make sure those in the lower divisions picked teams more to their liking, reducing the chances of inconveniencing them by making their loanees spend too much of their time sat watching from the bench or at home. Well, as we all know, it is all about them.

The Blades, though, cannot and will not think like that, not in the dog-eat-dog world of the Championship.

Manchester City's Spanish manager Pep Guardiola gives instructions to midfielder James McAtee during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg football match against Sporting Lisbon at the Etihad Stadium in March. Picture: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

Having missed the boat in last season’s play-off semi-finals, they have to be all about winning promotion before the Premier League parachute payment is cut from above their head. If along the way they help McAtee achieve his ambition of becoming the new David Silva, all fine and dandy, but it is way down their list of priorities.

The England Under-20 international, who will be hoping to make his debut at home to Millwall today but may have to do so from the bench because City also prioritised the here and now over his long-term development when allocating minutes in pre-season friendlies, only made the move on Thursday, and quickly realised what he was letting himself in for when he took part in training that morning.

He probably already had a fair idea, however.

Even though McAtee had plenty of clubs and leagues to choose from when it came to where he learnt his trade this season, Blades manager Paul Heckingbottom deliberately did not over-do the soft sell, instead putting plenty of emphasis on how hard it would be for the youngster, and challenging him to prove he was up to it.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom Picture: Adam Davy/PA

“He has to come here and impact the Championship against some great players who will be doing everything to stop him,” warned Heckingbottom. “He’s not at City where he’s going to have 70 per cent possession.”

It is a tough mindset that permeates the Steel City club.

“It’s very serious,” McAtee commented after his first session at Shirecliffe. “If you are sloppy on the ball then the lads will get on you, which is good.”

Hard-bitten pros have been the making of the modern Blades and although the core which took them against all expectations to ninth in the Premier League two years ago is slowly thinning out – David McGoldrick joined Derby County in the summer – there are no shortage of unforgiving dressing-room voices more than happy to tell it like it is, such as Billy Sharp, Chris Basham, John Fleck, John Egan and Oliver Norwood.

EARN IT: James McAtee of Manchester City battles for possession with Everton's Seamus Coleman at Etihad Stadium ni November last year Picture:Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

If it sounds harsh, it works.

Too many footballers these days are mollycoddled to within an inch of their lives, but Chris Wilder’s home truths did no harm in helping Dean Henderson become an England goalkeeper and Wolverhampton Wanderers loanee Morgan Gibbs-White flourished under the current straight-talking Yorkshireman in the manager’s office. Heckingbottom will not be happy unless McAtee matches the standards last season’s player of the year set in the No 10 position.

City must like the sound of it because as well as McAtee they have also lent the Blades Tommy Doyle, a deeper-lying midfielder, this summer. Doyle is one of a clutch of players, along with Oli McBurnie, Jayden Bogle and Basham – the most likely to feature today if he can elbow his way past Anel Ahmedhodzic, the centre-back his club did not know was suspended when they bought him from Malmo – back in training after injury this week.

No 10 – the 21st Century glamour position off the striker – is where Salford-born McAtee, who made the last of six substitute appearances last season in a Champions League knockout tie, yearns to play for City. It is what he has been trained for since joining their academy.

“It’s been the same process and the same pattern,” he recalls. “It just gets more advanced as you go through.

“I had one coach, called Mark Burton, who helped me a lot as a person and a player. Plus my mum and dad and brother (John, who plays for Grimsby Town). My mum is a dancer and my dad is a rugby player.

“I always thought I was a 10, and didn’t think I had to graft. He (Burton) flipped it around.

“David Silva was one (of McAtee’s role models). When I was younger, he was my idol. I’d watch his movement. I liked watching Jack Wilshere and Phil Foden but Silva was the one I’d really try and learn from.”

And of course there is Guardiola, once the midfield conductor of Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona dream team to talk to.

“Sometimes, it’s not about football, the chats with Pep are about life,” reveals McAtee. “He loves golf, and so I’ve talked with him about that.”

This summer, though, came the big chat – the one McAtee will not have wanted but probably needed.

When Heckingbottom, worried Wolves might recall Gibbs-White, first tried to sign him last season, McAtee politely declined, preferring to fight for playing time at Eastlands. Guardiola demurred then but not now.

“Before we went on pre-season tour, the manager said there are five midfielders and it would be difficult to get in the team,” says McAtee. “So go out, get some experience, and then come back and try and get into the team.”

The experience McAtee gets will be about life as well as football. This is big boy stuff, the unforgiving, unrelenting, disrespectful Championship.

Between now and May we will get a much better idea of whether McAtee really is fit to follow in his idol’s footsteps.