ALAN KNILL’S assertion that Sheffield United have the most sought after strikeforce in League One owes much to wishful thinking on the part of Bramall Lane’s assistant manager. The facts certainly don’t support his claim.
“We’re lucky we have four really good strikers,” said Knill immediately after the Blades 3-2 defeat in the FA Cup second round at promotion rivals Bolton. “Probably if you ask any other team in the league if they’d take our strikers they’d all go ‘yeah’.”
It is true of club captain and 12-goal top scorer Billy Sharp. As for summer signings Leon Clarke and Caolan Lavery who were paired up at the Macron Stadium – Sharp was rested on the bench — where is the evidence?
Matt Done’s workrate and movement which until recently ensured he was the preferred partner for Sharp, has long since made him a firm favourite at the Lane. But if you judge strikers on their goalscoring ability alone, Done, with just two this season from 21 appearances is falling well short of the mark.
Even so, in the absence of anyone better, United are much more effective going forward with him because of the runs he makes. Especially so since being allowed by Blades boss Chris Wilder to come in from the cold out wide under previous managers and play his preferred central role.
Take Sharp, last season’s top marksman with 21 goals, out of the team and unless there is a dramatic transformation, the size of the stumbling block United absolutely have to hurdle in the January transfer window emerges.
United’s past and current difficulties up front are confounded by the fact they can score. Thirty-two of them during a 15-match unbeaten league run when goals were flying in from all areas of the pitch. Ten more, admittedly against poor opposition, in successive FA Cup and Checkatrade Trophy matches. Loanee and hat-trick hero in the 6-0 cup win over Leyton Orient, Harry Chapman, has this week returned to Middlesbrough for treatment to an injury sustained in training. What is to the say these same players cannot do it again? Probably the law of averages and the fact that only Sharp was pulling his weight up front.
Tellingly the 30-year-old skipper was the lone ranger amongst his colleagues in the striker’s union with 11. Next with were centre-back Ethan Ebanks-Landell (4), and diminutive midfield man Stefan Scougall (3). Done contributed two goals and Clarke just one. Even Knill, in the same conversation at Bolton, admitted confusingly after singing the praises of the strikers available: “We’re not too far off but we’re a mile off if you don’t convert at one end and keep them out at the other. So that’s the bit to put right.”
Clarke, 11 appearances, six of them starts, three goals. Lavery, 12 appearances, admittedly only two starts, has failed to score. In fact the last time the 24-year-old celebrated finding the back of the net was on December 12 last year whilst on loan at Portsmouth from Sheffield Wednesday.
Done almost an ever present until being dropped in favour of Clarke for the recent trip to Charlton, last struck on September 17, the winner at home to Peterborough.
Kill insists that all Clarke and Lavery need is more match time. “I think the front players are only going to get better as the season goes on,” he said. “They’re both players that have missed a lot of football.”
You would hope so. Clarke, out for several weeks after chipping an ankle bone, looked sluggish on his arrival and since returning to full fitness following injury has done little to alter that perception.
Lavery, meanwhile, in the doldrums at Hillsborough where he failed to establish himself and spent most of his four years there out on loan, crossed the city to a fanfare from Wilder who said: “He is an outstanding signing for us. We’ve got a young player who is hungry, aggressive and wants to run in behind with natural pace. We didn’t really have that in the squad.”
So much so that four months into the season the Canadian-born former Northern Ireland Under-21 international has never been chosen to start a league fixture even though the major competition has only managed to score twice.
Knill’s optimism is not born out by overall career stats either. Lavery’s goals per league match average is one in five; Clarke’s is one in four. Done’s is one in ten. Sharp's career figure, meanwhile, 0.41, is not far short of matching an impressive record during his third spell at the Lane of a goal every two matches (33 in 64 league appearances).
It shouldn't be overlooked, either, that it took United until October 13 to register a plus goal difference. The last couple of weeks have exposed a banana skin. Some Blades were blinded by the light but the writing was on the wall as United struggled to break down nine-man Shrewsbury and Bury at the Lane despite total domination.
At Charlton , United tore through the south Londoners but a solitary strike, Mark Duffy's third for the club, was all they could muster for their considerable efforts. That left the door ajar and the outplayed Addicks snatched a draw barely deserved in added time. A result described by Wilder who could not hide his fury, as 'criminal'.
Three days later Walsall brought the 15-match unbeaten run to an undignified end in a 1-0 win at the Lane. United dominated once more, creating plenty of good opportunities but yet again couldn't finish.
On to Bolton in the FA Cup and back to back defeats. On paper a far more difficult challenge, in reality United once again looked for much of the tie the better team and enjoyed two thirds of possession.
“We had enough of the game to get something out of it but unfortunately what happens in both boxes, that’s the thing that counts," said Knill. “We had more chances to score and didn’t take them and that’s why you lose the game.
“It was just like Tuesday [against Walsall], exactly the same. We’ve just talked in there [the dressing room] and we’ve said we don’t want to be tagged ‘best team lost’. In our eyes we were the best team but the best team wins."
Indeed. If United are serious about securing automatic promotion and avoiding an end-of-season lottery which historically never ends well, this can't continue. Neither can pretending the strikeforce, Sharp aside, is good enough.