Why Sheffield United's misfiring striker Leon Clarke is untouchable as Blades prepare to resume race for the play-offs

Misfiring Sheffield United striker hasn't scored since early December but the Blades top scorer still holds key to reaching play-offs at Bramall Lane

HOW do you solve a problem like Leon? The 33-year-old striker who earlier this season topped the Championship charts with a deadly display of finishing, now can’t hit the proverbial cow’s bottom with a banjo.

It doesn’t simply rest on Leon Clarke’s wide shoulders. Sheffield United will resume their bid to reach the play-offs at Brentford on Friday following the latest international break having failed to score in three of their last four matches. It seems if goals dry up from other areas the strike department doesn’t offer much help. 

Clarke, the Blades leading scorer with 15, nevertheless has just one goal to show for his last 14 appearances. That was at Derby on New Year’s day.

Clayton Donaldson, has found the back of the net once in his last 12 outings. Twenty-two-year-old loanee James Wilson, from Manchester United whose stay at the Lane has been plagued by fitness issues, also has a single strike from seven appearances and only four starts in a Blades shirt. He and Donaldson last scored in the 2-1 win at Norwich in mid January.

Ched Evans, meanwhile, continues to be an enigma. Since returning to Bramall Lane last summer when clearly not fit, the 29-year-old has yet to score in 13 attempts. In fact the last time Evans struck was 15 months ago for former club Chesterfield. He made 11 blank appearances for the Spireites after that before sitting out the remaining 11 league fixtures as they were relegated to League Two. His injury and fitness problems were well signposted by Chesterfield boss at the time, Gary Caldwell who said: “He’s been unfit for the majority of my time here.”

Wilder, however, was more optimistic.“Ched comes to us with targets to achieve along the way,” he said. “With a full pre-season with us we believe he can provide us with options up front and score goals.” That hasn’t happened. In fact Evans was allowed to leave the Lane and was absent from playing first team football for four months in order to have surgery and recover from a long-standing ankle problem.

The distant memory of Evans’ 35 goals for United in 2011-12 is what engenders fading hopes he will rediscover the Midas touch. It shouldn’t be forgotten, however, that haul as impressive as it was came in League One. Before that he was regarded as a £3million mistake buy from Manchester City when United were still in the Championship. His claim to fame whilst on loan from City, was netting 10 goals in 28 Championship appearances for Norwich. That was ten seasons ago as a teenager.

Having started only his second league match in the goalless draw at Ipswich earlier this month and substituted for Wilson after 69 minutes, he has now disappeared from view, not even making the subs’ bench for the following two fixtures.

Then there is of course United’s prize asset David Brooks, widely expected to be leaving, possibly for Tottenham in the summer. The extraordinarily talented 20-year-old has scored three times this season. Occasionally pressed into emergency service up front he is far more creative and influential running at defenders from midfield, his natural position.

Brooks, a full Wales international but back on duty with the Under-21s because of his recent bout of glandular fever, came closest to scoring during their 1-0 defeat last Friday by Bosnia-Herzegovina in Bilino Polje. Brooks also had a penalty claim waved away in the European Championship qualifier.

  MR DEPENDABLE:  BILLY SHARP IS ON COURSE TO BECOME UNITED'S TOP SCORER FOR A THIRD SUCCESSIVE SEASON.

MR DEPENDABLE: BILLY SHARP IS ON COURSE TO BECOME UNITED'S TOP SCORER FOR A THIRD SUCCESSIVE SEASON.

All of which only goes to underline the continuing importance of Billy Sharp whose season has not been what he might have expected. Some United fans are too quick to write off the 32-year-old club captain when he goes through a barren spell. More recently, it appears sentiment shared by the manager. He dropped Sharp after the turn of the year and infamously left him on the bench in favour of Wilson in the last 24 minutes of the goalless Steel City derby at the Lane. 

But where would they be without the man who has to date scored 64 goals since rejoining United from Leeds in the summer of 2015.

First he played an invaluable role to keep heads above water on an otherwise sinking ship as United finished 11th in League One under Nigel Adkins. The club’s lowest placing for 33 years and but for Sharp’s 21-goal contribution it could have easily been the unthinkable.

Last season he added 30 more, spearheading the Blades’ record 100-point march to promotion. Life in the Championship has proved more challenging. But despite no longer being the first name on the teamsheet he still has 13 goals to his credit, five of them since the end of January. On current form he is likely to finish top scorer for a third successive season.

Wilson’s admission last week that he wasn’t match fit when he arrived from Manchester United comes as no surprise. Not when his last competitive outing was 15 months earlier for Derby County. An EFL Trophy defeat at Doncaster in which he scored his only goal for them before being substituted for an injury forcing an early return to Old Trafford. Wilson made four Championship appearances for the Rams with no return.

  FITNESS ISSUES:  OLD TRAFFORD LOANEE JAMES WILSON

FITNESS ISSUES: OLD TRAFFORD LOANEE JAMES WILSON

The striker’s untimely reminder, however, does make Chris Wilder’s decision to  grant him his debut from the bench ahead of Sharp, a lifelong Blades designed for this very fixture, only two days after introducing and unfit Wilson to his new teammates, even more perplexing.

Clarke, declared by the manager in October as “as our main man up front now” appears to remain untouchable despite his goal drought. An ever-present apart from a three-match suspension after collecting a needless red card and minor injury niggles.

His explosive first four months of the season which delivered 14 – four against Hull City alone – by early December was a revelation. Not only for the ex-Sheffield Wednesday man’s tally but his athleticism and workrate largely unseen in a disappointing, injury-hit first season at the Lane. It won over sceptics and made him a firm favourite with the Blades faithful.

That remains so even though there may be a few mumblings from the back, purely because their has been no let-up in his application and United fans always appreciate a trier. Many point to Clarke’s ability to hold the ball up as a support act being good enough to justify his inclusion. True, but when the goals dry up you have to ask what is the main role of a forward and that is, of course, to score.

Here Clarke has stopped delivering but there is no sign of his place being at risk.  How can this be so for a player who’s job it is to score goals and has managed it once since the second week of December? Is it because the manager believes his replacements are inferior despite Clarke’s single goal return in more than three months? Possibly although Donaldson, who hasn’t had the benefit of a prolonged starting run in the team, might have something to say about that.

Maybe nearer the mark is that Wilder knows what an impact Clarke had before the turn of the year, just the kind of impact that is needed to propel United into the play-offs. A complex character who more than most needs to feel the love, the blow of dropping him could be seen as counter-productive and set him back. There is a reason why Clarke wears the captain’s armband in the absence of Sharp and it’s not because he is a born leader of men.

United fans and manager would love to see a resurgent Clarke repeat his finale to last season’s title-winning campaign when free from injury Bramall Lane saw a pre-cursor of what was to follow. The re-born striker scored six goals in the last seven matches.

Maybe that alone is enough to justify his place. Clarke and Sharp have scored 28 goals between them this season which is a good return. No one else, however, is anywhere near reaching double figures, Donaldson the closest on five and Brooks with his three.

Signing players who aren’t fit in the first place doesn’t help but what’s surely beyond doubt come the summer is United’s current strikeforce faces a major shake-up.