LIKE it or not time is running out for Matt Done as Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder considers his options in the January transfer window.
The striker received a standing ovation at Bramall Lane, making way for summer signing Caolan Lavery who came on to score his first goal for the club and complete a 4-0 rout of Swindon.
Lavery has yet to begin a league match for the Blades – he has only a full 90 minutes to his name, the FA Cup defeat at Bolton. Nevertheless has now scored half as many goals as Done who has started 18 league fixtures. In fact apart from injury, Done until very recently has been an ever-present in United’s promotion campaign.
The reason is plain to see. What he lacks in finishing he more than makes up for in workrate and movement which opens up defences and provides opportunities for others to score. United are better with him. Supporters appreciate that and so does the manager.
But Wilder has his limits. Done was dropped to the bench for United’s previous two league fixtures, a wasteful draw at Charlton and the home defeat to Walsall which ended an unbeaten 15-match league run.
It is only a lack of competition which made his return inevitable and even after yet another blank from the 28-year-old against Swindon, Wilder confirmed Done will be playing at Coventry City on Thursday. “He just needs one off the shin, like Caolan’s,” was the manager’s hopeful conclusion after United’s 12th league win of the season moved them back into an automatic promotion place, three points behind leaders Scunthorpe. They slipped to third spot last night after Bolton's 4-0 victory at home to Gillingham.
It is undeniable, however, that Done is first and foremost in the team to score goals and for the amount of football he has played this season a return of two is poor. It is also a reflection of what Wilder has at his disposal. If United had a partner to match 12-goal top scorer Billy Sharp, Done wouldn’t be in the side. Or, given his all-round contribution under Wilder, if he was he’d probably be pushed back out to the left as an attacking wing forward where former bosses Nigel Clough and Nigel Adkins exiled him.
If you had asked most Blades fans a couple of months ago to name their top three players, Done would have been one of them alongside Sharp and central midfield revelation Paul Coutts.
But United have developed as a team since then. In midfield Mark Duffy, the ever-improving and influential John Fleck, and defenders Kieron Freeman, Jake Wright and Ethan Ebanks-Landell are all top contenders now to join Coutts and Sharp.
Wilder is still prepared to grant Done every opportunity to discover his shooting boots, hence his willingness to give a public heads-up to the former Rochdale player’s inclusion for a fixture at the Ricoh Arena which at the time was five days away. There are not many Blades supporters who would disagree. But as recent weeks have demonstrated it is not something that Wilder can accommodate for much longer without taking a huge risk as the season reaches the halfway stage.
Take Saturday for example. After 45 minutes there was no evidence that problems of the last month had been solved. Namely dominating possession, maintaining a constant threat but failing to reap reward in the final third. The second half truly told the story of the match and the tale of the season. Four goals flew in as Swindon were crushed, but substitute Lavery’s sole intervention aside, it was from midfield where the strike power came form.
Man-of-the-match Mark Duffy who produced his finest performance in a Blades shirt, a phrase which has become synonymous with every appearance by the 31-year-old in recent weeks, scored two. Coutts, unwanted and transfer-listed in the summer but who has fought back to become United’s missing general at the centre of operations, hit the other.
A clear pattern has emerged. When goals flow from other areas United look like the automatic promotion candidates they really are. When it’s not forthcoming and the spotlight turns to the forward line, they’re found wanting. Only Sharp steps up to the plate and shoulders the burden. Done, Lavery and Leon Clarke share four league goals between them. That in anyone’s book is nowhere near good enough. Not even for a side at the wrong end of the table let alone promotion contenders.
Wilder, of course, knows that. He’s not the sort of guy who lives in a world of self-denial as we have seen so frustratingly from his recent predecessors. Only last week he confirmed his intention to look elsewhere “if the strikers don’t do their jobs”. Which is why the clock is ticking for Done, a favourite son of the Lane and his preferred choice.
What does it say to Lavery. Wilder heralded the Canadian-born former Northern Ireland Under-21 international’s arrival from Sheffield Wednesday as “exciting” and “providing something that we haven’t got”. How much longer can he be condemned to continue playing a bit part instead of being given a reasonable chance to prove himself.
Clarke, meanwhile, remains an enigma. When given an opportunity, his lethargy makes it hard to understand how he scored 18 goals for Bury last season. Easier to fathom, however, why United is the 18th club of the 31-year-old’s career since beginning as a trainee at Wolves. He and Sharp when paired up, still look like strangers.
Paradoxically, after Clarke and Lavery replaced Sharp and Done for the latter stages against Swindon they struck a promising partnership.
In early autumn United’s transfer window priority appeared, as it has done for too many years, to concern midfield. That has receded dramatically due to the increasing influence of Coutts, Duffy and Fleck. Now it is most definitely up front.
Finding the perfect partner for Sharp would on the evidence seen so far take a huge and game-changing stride to ensuring Championship football returns to the Lane next season after six long seasons. It’s a price worth paying and one that Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the club’s owners, have no doubt already been made aware of.
Unitedites and the manager all hope that Done, in particular, has a great Christmas. But whether he does or not there is no doubt Wilder will have to grasp the nettle.