Sheffield United: West Brom and the supposedly impossible mission

First it was impossible. Then it became improbable.

Monday, 7th February 2022, 4:10 pm

But now, after experiencing a remarkable upturn in fortunes since Paul Heckingbottom’s appointment, Sheffield United sense they can achieve something which seemed utterly unthinkable only three months ago.

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We’re talking about promotion. A return to Premier League football. Even though, as he applied the finishing touches to their preparations for Wednesday’s game against West Bromwich Albion, Heckingbottom only had eyes for Steve Bruce’s side.

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“We’ll do all the analysis but it might turn out to be irrelevant,” he said, highlighting the difficulties of facing a team under new management. “Still, our focus is on us and trying to do what we want. We’re looking at hunting down everyone above us in the table.”

A VERY BIG DEAL

Make no mistake about it, Albion’s visit to South Yorkshire is a big deal. A very big deal indeed. And with only three points separating United from their sixth-placed opponents, one which might even be described as positively gargantuan if you graduated from the Don King school of sporting hyperbole.

The fixture is also the first of eight matches United will contest between now and the beginning of next month after their schedule was wrecked by a series of postponements over Christmas and New Year.

Paul Heckingbottom has excelled since taking charge of Sheffield United: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

On the face of it, that could prove an issue for a squad which, by his own admission, Heckingbottom deliberately streamlined during the recent transfer window. But with meetings with fellow top-flight hopefuls Huddersfield Town, Middlesbrough, Nottingham Forest and Blackburn Rovers also shoehorned into a frantically busy four week period, the revised calendar has become a source of hope and confidence for a United side which, following Friday’s comeback at Birmingham City, has now won seven of its last nine Championship outings. Twelve of their remaining 19 contests are set to be staged at Bramall Lane, where United were last beaten at the end of October.

“Hopefully the fact we are at home so much, the fans can play a huge role,” Heckingbottom said. “We want that to be a positive thing. We want people to feel the force of Bramall Lane.

“Having brought teams to Bramall Lane, it doesn’t half give the home players a lift and an advantage.

Rhian Brewster looks set to miss the rest of Sheffield United's season: David Klein / Sportimage

“It can take away energy from the opposition as well. We will be trying our best to deliver that energy and atmosphere. It can add to an uneasy feeling for the away team. It can lead to the feeling that there's this relentless wave and we are going to need that.”

“We’re going to face all sorts of different challenges between now and the end,” the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian manager added. “When teams try and slow things down against us, we might need the fans to show that knowledge that they’ve got and to help us get through that as well. Or to give the lads help in certain moments.”

MOMENTUM AND MAYBE MORGAN

United will enter their clash against West Brom with momentum and, if Heckingbottom succumbs to temptation, Morgan Gibbs-White after the on-loan midfielder’s return to full-time training. Arguably their most influential player - although Billy Sharp, with 10 goals to his name already this term, could be forgiven for disagreeing - Gibbs-White had netted five of his own in just 16 appearances before suffering an injury during December’s triumph at Fulham.

New West Bromwich Albion manager Steve Bruce: Nick Potts/PA Wire.

“Morgan is where we wanted him to be,” said Heckingbottom. “We were delighted with his rehab and now we just want to get him minutes. He’s back from Wolves and was ready to go straight away.”

West Brom prevailed 4-0 when the two teams met in the Midlands earlier this season - a scoreline Heckingbottom’s predecessor Slavisa Jokanovic acknowledged reflected the fact his side had not only been battered skill-wise but physically too. He wasn’t wrong although, to provide some context, United’s build-up had been overshadowed by Aaron Ramsdale’s Machiavellian maneuverings as he forced through a move to Arsenal.

With the Serb leaving his post three months after that evisceration, the manager responsible for arranging it - Valerien Ismael - was sacked by West Brom towards the end of last week following a run of four defeats in six league games. Despite failing to complete the greatest act of escapology since Airey Neave strolled out of Colditz wearing a German army uniform, United correctly fathomed Heckingbottom’s spell in caretaker charge as they drifted towards relegation last term had equipped him with the experience to make an immediate impact this time around.

TWO CUTE MOVES

Sheffield United beat Birmingham City last time out: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

By naming Bruce as Ismael’s replacement, West Brom look to have made a similarly cute appointment. The 61-year-old, who started his coaching career with United nearly two and a half decades ago, will make some tweaks as Heckingbottom acknowledged. But with a reputation for building hard-working, functional and well-organised teams, Bruce’s methods won’t be a culture shock for a group of players who worked under Sam Allardyce before Ismael’s arrival. The Frenchman was also better known for his pragmatism than panache.

“We are focusing on us and what we want to bring and how we want to perform,” Heckingbottom said. “We fully respect West Brom and, if anything, we think they are going to be even more dangerous with Steve coming in for his first game.”

Bruce, who has won 10 and lost only two of his previous 14 game against United, told reporters over the weekend that he plans to “make some changes”. But not “big ones”. Goalkeeper Sam Johnstone could be recalled after a row with Ismael while Andy Carroll, signed from Reading, worked with Bruce at Newcastle.

United could also reshuffle the starting eleven which prevailed 2-1 at St Andrews. With striker Rhian Brewster set to miss the rest of the campaign because of a hamstring injury, Billy Sharp and Iliman Ndiaye are likely to continue in attack although Conor Hourinhane, on loan from Aston Villa, could return in midfield.

“Everyone needs to be ready,” Heckingbottom said. “We’re going into a challenging game and a busy period.”