IF Caolan Lavery proves to be the player Sheffield United think he is, it almost certainly points to a winter of discontent for one of United’s current first choice strikers. The favourite being Billy Sharp.
Unless manager Chris Wilder is planning to rotate his strikeforce or introduce a new approach something has to give. Sharp and Leon Clarke have yet to show any sign of forming an effective partnership. Matt Done, allowed a rare opportunity to play his preferred position down the middle alongside the Blades skipper in Sunday’s 2-1 win at Gillingham, was far more effective than in his customary wide role.
Done is one of the good guys, a 100 per cent trier. But it is unlikely he will top trump either Clarke who started on the bench at the Priestfield Stadium after recovering from a knock, or Sharp.
Wilder is a great admirer of Lavery and is not shy to admit it. So much so that the manager has effectively put his judgment on the line. Expected to make his Blades debut in the Under-23 derby against former club Sheffield Wednesday this week at the Lane – it finished 1-1 – Lavery's non involvement suggests it may have be another week or two before seeing him in the matchday squad. “The timing is important for Caolan,” said Wilder. “He won’t be 100 per cent when he steps out there but we need him to be close to it. We don’t want him injuring himself and then taking a step back."
Lavery arrived last week on a three-year deal having earlier rejected a new contract offer from Wednesday. Judging from Wilder's reaction the player is intended to play a significant role. “He is an outstanding signing for us,” said the Blades boss. “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.”
The 23-year-old last played competitively eight months ago on January 2, his final match on loan to Portsmouth before returning to Hillsborough. He formed a partnership with another loanee, Blades striker Marc McNulty, whom Wilder sent to League One rivals Bradford City for the remainder of the season on the same day as Lavery signed. This despite Wilder having described the pair’s Pompey partnership as being the “best at the time in the division [League Two].”
If Lavery lives up to Wilder’s high expectation – on paper that appears a big if – It would seem more likely that he will play off the imposing frame of Clarke, a five-figure summer signing from Bury. So where does that leave Sharp, United’s top scorer last season with 21 goals and leading the way again with three.?
Playing out wide in the position occupied by Done who offers more pace? Or, barring injuries, is he going to have to get used to starting on the bench in a super sub role? Imagine the irony in that. A born and bred Blade looking on as two former Wednesday strikers lead the front line.
There is a third, more exciting option. Used in an advanced midfield role, playing in the hole behind the front two, Wayne Rooney-style, which would make more sense given United’s almost historic lack of firepower from the central area. Of course, if the goals are flying in few will care or have much sympathy if Sharp has to adapt. If he was watching on it would suggest the promotion boat had set sail. United would be in a strong position and even the skipper couldn’t complain too loudly. But despite the fanfare Canadian-born Lavery, who has represented Canada Under-17s and Northern Ireland — he has Irish parents from both sides of the border— still has it all to prove. Wilder clearly believes he has unearthed a gem.
Lavery’s record doesn’t suggest that. Unable to establish himself at Hillsborough since moving from Ipswich in 2012, he has been loaned to Southend, Plymouth, Chesterfield and finally Portsmouth. His strike rate – 16 in 72 career appearances – is a goal every four-and-a-half matches. Put like that it doesn't convey he is set to thrill. Statistically at least, however, United have signed what amounts to a 10-goal-a-season man over a full League One campaign.
Lavery, a bright personality, failed to make the right impression at Hillsborough. A message tweeted to Wednesday supporters last week hinted that personal difficulties lay behind it. “I want to say a big thank you to all the fans at SWFC,” he said. “They have always supported me and stuck by me and I will always remember that. Things that happened behind the scenes had nothing to do with the fans. I wish the best for SWFC. But it’s time for a new chapter in my career and I look forward to getting going with United!”
It’s not the first time that Lavery, clearly his own man, has rejected a contract offer. He did the same at Ipswich as a youth after having spent two seasons at Portman Road. He played 12 times for Northern Ireland at Under-17 and Under-21 level then turned down the chance of winning his first senior international cap because he was going to his brother's wedding.
Wilder likes players who have something to prove and his latest acquisition certainly fits the bill. He has to grab the career-changing chance Wilder has granted him, win over fans at the Lane and demonstrate he is not a flawed character. Knuckle down and score goals he can achieve all three. Maybe even re-establish his international credentials after being included in Northern Ireland's senior squad in Spring 2015.
The season hasn’t begun as United fans anticipated. It is only after back-to-back wins, both after having fallen behind, has a semblance of stability been established. Arguably the man who only a month ago justifiably expected to be the first name on the team sheet may be about to pay a price through little fault of his own.
It’s telling that before Sharp scored United’s winner at Gillingham from the penalty spot there had been some discussion on the bench about substituting him. In the end it was Done who gave way for Clarke. “It was good the gaffer kept me on the pitch so I could get the penalty,” said a grateful-sounding Sharp.
If anyone needed a reminder, Wilder reiterated this week: “We’ve shown we’re not afraid to make tough decisions. Nobody is untouchable.”