coming of age

Loan watch 2022/23: James McAtee

Before the curtain raised on the 2022/23 campaign, the pain of an agonising play-off semi-final defeat to Nottingham Forest lingered over Sheffield United from the season before.

Failing to return to the Premier League immediately no doubt increased worry over the club’s standing in the EFL, and perhaps the uncertainty grew when the Blades signed only one player permanently in the summer of 2022 alongside four Premier League loanees.

However, there were no signs in a stall in momentum as the quintet of new arrivals enhanced an already strong squad in Yorkshire - with one of these temporary top flight acquisitions, of course, being James McAtee.

Undeterred by losing their opening game of the season, Paul Heckingbottom’s side embarked on a 10-game unbeaten run which set the tone for a fantastic season which would result in automatic promotion.

What’s more, Sheffield United also embarked on a spellbinding FA Cup run which saw them reach the competition’s last-four before a Wembley defeat to Pep Guardiola’s side.

And City’s starlet played a vital role which helped the Blades enjoy a sparkling campaign which will live long in the memory for those associated with the Yorkshire side.

An unflappable positive force who glides across the pitch

Throughout his fledgling career, McAtee has established himself as a creative gem who can massively influence any game he participates in.

Ahead of his loan move to Sheffield United, he had followed in the footsteps of players such as Phil Foden and Cole Palmer to hail from Greater Manchester, progress through our Academy and play for City’s first team.

His senior bow came in a strong 6-1 win over Wycombe Wanderers in September 2021 and five further outings for Pep Guardiola’s side followed.

After a period of adaptation at Brammall Lane, he proved to be an immensely valuable asset to Heckingbottom – impressively scoring nine league goals and registering three assists.

His first strike arrived in an enthralling 3-3 draw with Blackpool in October which highlighted his already fast progression in a new environment.

Overall, he recorded 35 Championship chances created for his teammates in red and white, while completing a respectable 39 dribbles in a league renowned for its tough physical nature.

Recognition continued to arrive on the international stage, too, where he raised his total appearances for England Under-21s to three.

“I feel like I found myself there. I found the way I want to play and how I want to affect games.”

James McAtee

By his own admission, McAtee’s start to life at Sheffield United didn’t go quite as planned for the dynamic forward who had enjoyed a trophy-laden Academy career and already featured six times for Guardiola’s side.

Across the Blades’ opening four league games, he played just once before starting one of his next seven outings in red and white.

However, this ignited a fire inside McAtee who impressively fought his way back into Heckingbottom’s starting line-up to make 43 appearances in all competitions.

“I think I kind of went into it with the wrong mentality,” McAtee admitted.

“Thinking ‘I’ve done well all through my Academy [life] and I’ll just do well again’.

“It wasn’t like that at all, I had to step up another level and get used to the different style of play and the physicality of men’s football.

“I feel like I found myself there. I found the way I want to play and how I want to affect games.

“On the pitch I definitely feel like I’ve grown up and it was the first time I’ve moved out as well when I went to Sheffield [United]. I’ve definitely grown up off the pitch, so it’s been a great experience.

“Hopefully it can help me out in the long run.”

For the England Under-21 international, one performance changed the trajectory of his immensely valuable Yorkshire tenure.

Having lost to Rotherham in their latest assignment in November, the Blades’ trip to Cardiff four days later geared up to be a vital match in order to boost their promotion credentials.

But with the match ending 0-0 at half-time in south Wales, United were craving some much-needed creativity.

Up stepped McAtee.

Introduced during the interval, he was often a thorn in the Bluebirds’ side and was the architect of the game’s only goal, driving to the opposition box before the ball fell to George Baldock who rifled home.

His influence on proceedings certainly helped seal a precious three points – and he never looked back.

McAtee continued: “I think all the Sheffield United fans will know [the turning point] was definitely Cardiff away.

“I thought I was going to be playing the game and I didn’t, I was on the bench and I got brought on at half-time.

“It was 0-0 against Cardiff and I remember the lads saying ‘come on Macca we need you’.

“It made me feel like I was needed and it just brought something out of me and I think from there I just didn’t look back.

“The fans were great. When I first went I didn’t think it was going to be sold out, but especially at the start of the game when they sing that song I thought it was an amazing atmosphere.

“It really gets you up for it and it’s definitely different to playing for the Under-23s.

“I know how I want to play now. I know how I can affect games and the mentality once get a lead or get a goal back to either push on or play a bit safe.

“I think my game management has improved a lot being at Sheffield United.”

Having progressed through City’s Academy from our Under-11s, McAtee penned his first professional contract in July 2020.

Throughout an illustrious youth career, his 28 appearances across the 2021/22 term for our EDS saw him named Players’ Player of the Year as we won the Premier League 2 title.

At the centre of McAtee’s emotions regarding his time of progress at the CFA is gratitude to the coaches and staff who have helped him on his journey so far.

And he explained how the Club’s support was hugely beneficial to him in Yorkshire.

McAtee added: “Barry Holland and Gaz [Gareth Whalley] would come down and speak to me and I think they came two or three times.

“At the start it wasn’t going too well and he was just saying ‘remember what you’re good at, play to your strengths and you’ll do just fine’.

“They helped me out a lot. They gave me some confidence back and it helped me towards the back end of the season.

“The coaching [at City] was world class from when I was young.

“Especially one of my favourite coaches, Mark Burton, taught me a lot. When I was young and learning [the style of play].”

“Of course it’s a different style when you go on loan as it’s a different style and you have to adapt. That’s part of going on loan and learning a different way of football.

“If you listen here and listen to the coaches, [I] think you’ll be just fine.”

“There’s something lovely about watching a player like James.”

James Shield, Sheffield United reporter

McAtee certainly came of age at Sheffield United by experiencing the rigours of senior football, consistently, for the first time.

Across his time at Brammall Lane, he expertly helped them return to the Premier League after a two-year absence and reach the FA Cup semi-final for the first time since 2014.

And it’s fair to file his time with Heckingbottom’s as a tremendous nine-month education.

“When you look at it [McAtee’s loan] overall, I think James, City, and Sheffield United will have viewed it as an absolute success,” Sheffield Star sport reporter James Shield declared.

“I think James got everything out of it on a personal level that he could’ve wished for. I think he experienced absolutely everything City could’ve wished for. He proved to be a really, really good fit.

“In terms of his character and the way he handled himself, he proved to be a really, really good fit for the football club, as well.

“He and Tommy [Doyle] were very down to earth lads, they didn’t turn up at the football club with any sense of entitlement whatsoever. They turned up knowing they had to fight to get into the team, neither of them were handed a place.

“So, everything James achieved throughout his time at Sheffield United he had to earn and I think that was so important.

“I think he certainly grew as a person and I think he also grew in confidence as the season went on.

“It was a difficult team for him to get into and James can obviously play, he’s technically really strong.

“When you watch him play, you can see someone who just loves to play football and loves to have a ball at his feet – it really does shine through.

“There’s something lovely about watching a player like James, especially in the final third, who you can tell they just love playing football. It’s a really nice thing to see.”

Although McAtee’s time at Sheffield United proved to be a sparkling success, the harsh early lessons he was taught at Brammall Lane could’ve dismantled the brimming confidence of City’s starlet.

The turning point, though, was a match away at hardened Luton Town in the intimidating cauldron of Kenilworth Road – according to those who examine the club closely with a microscope.

Turner added: “He started off right at the beginning of his career at United, it wasn’t his first game, but there was a match at Luton in August.

“I think it’s fair to say he looked exactly what he was which was a really young player, not quite ready for the physical side of the Championship.

“All of the talent he has, in one game, in the first half just got smothered.

“But what I thought was so impressive, after being replaced at half-time, he’s clearly gone away from that and spoken with the coaching staff, the people around him and looked inside himself and asked ‘what do I have to do now, what do I have to be, and what do I have to work on to get better and allow this talent I have the room to breathe'.”

“He did it absolutely phenomenally. The change in him was so, so quick.”