Sheffield United v Wolverhampton Wanderers: George Baldock's return is a welcome sweetie as Paul Heckingbottom calls for characters
Not many clubs lose their captain and vice-captain to surgical procedures in the space of a week but John Egan and Chris Basham face long rehabilitations after ankle operations. Oli McBurnie, another leader of the team, is out with a groin injury, and George Baldock is only now coming back from calf trouble.
Like Basham, Tom Davies probably does not make the strongest XI in all honesty but his 155 Premier League appearances are pretty handy in a newly-promoted side.
Throw in the summer departures of then-captain Billy Sharp and Enda Stevens, another key figure of the team which finished ninth in the 2019-20 Premier League, and there are big holes to fill.
But there are no bonus points for excuses, however valid, so the Blades will just have to crack on without them – except the fit-again Baldock – in a match they really need to win against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday.
It comes to something when opponents who have beaten Manchester City and drawn with Aston Villa and Newcastle United in their last four matches (the other was a sweet victory at Bournemouth for manager Gary O'Neil) is a game to target but after one point from 10 games and have have just come through defeats against Manchester United and Arsenal, this home game has been looming large.
Other characters simply have to step up to stop the relegation already looking highly likely becoming inevitable. It will figure in manager Paul Heckingbottom's thinking when he picks the team he throws to O'Neil's Wolves but with double-figure injuries, not as much as he would like.
"If we have everyone fit you guys would always say last season, 'You've got a tough decision,' but it's the best way to get a response,” he argues.
"If I'm telling my kids off every day and I'm still buying them sweets they're not going to listen to me. If I'm telling them off and they're not getting what they want, they might.
"That weapon in my armoury has been taken away from me.
"Sometimes when you're a player in the dressing room, you want to hide and you're happy if someone else is getting the stick for you. We can't afford that.
"We have to show the togetherness, the spirit, that's got us here.
"The boys who haven't (been part of last season's promotion) have maybe stepped into a more difficult environment – show what you're about now, show us your character. We'll certainly back them if we get the energy and the application, without a doubt.
"But it is easier said than done."
Baldock's return – as a 71st-minute substitute at Arsenal – at least helps. For most of last season it was too close to call when injuries allowed a choice between the more attacking Jayden Bogle and the more experienced Greek international at right wing-back but of the final 12 matches, Baldock started all but one – and that was after promotion had been secured.
"He brings an energy and a personality which is important," says Heckingbottom. "We need that personality from everyone. Don't be a bystander, don't be a shrinking violet, you have to bring your personality to our team in every game."
He has to stand up too, knowing the scrutiny he is under and honest enough not to argue back. The worst start to a Premier League season tells a story that is hard to dispute.
"I know what I’m doing, how hard I’m working, how good the staff are and our relationship with the players," says a man who oversaw a season-and-a-half at the top end of the Championship despite great financial difficulties. "I know how effective it’s been but we’re at a whole new level now.
"We’ve got different circumstances and we’ve had to build a new team, so the process starts again. We’re just having to do it in the most unforgiving league.
"I’m also not naive enough to think that you can continue not winning all the time, so I get why all that noise comes around.
"That’s not of my doing or what I want to see or hear, but the only way we can solve it is by winning games and it will probably go away."
It says everything that fans are split on Heckingbottom. If you only looked at a league table, you would expect their decision to be unanimous.
"The fans have been fantastic, home and away, and we’re in this together," says the manager.
"One thing the fans can be sure of is how hard we work and how much we care about the place, the staff and the players.
"The fans play their part on a matchday and that’s a given. We’re totally in it together on a matchday and it’s our job in the week to prepare then go and perform in a way to get the fans going again. Then they do their bit to help us get over the line.
"It’s certainly a two-way thing between us and the fans."
There are genuine reasons behind the Blades' struggles, just as there is a strong case to say Heckingbottom is as well placed as anyone to fight their way out of them.
But real characters do not wait for others to come to their defence, they force the issue themselves. The Blades need 11 on the field at Bramall Lane on Saturday.