Sheffield United: Paul Heckingbottom's brutally frank admission about the position his team find themselves in ahead of FA Cup clash

Sunday’s visit to Wolverhampton Wanderers is more than just a football match for Sheffield United.

Friday, 7th January 2022, 3:00 pm

After nearly three weeks of inactivity, following a series of controversial postponements, the FA Cup tie at Molineux will be a blessed relief too. An escape from the drudgery of talking about Covid-19, its impact upon the fixture calendar and dreaming up new ways of making it known, whilst refusing to say so explicitly, they suspect some other Championship clubs are guilty of a little chicanery. Why else, during an interview with United’s official website earlier this month, would Paul Heckingbottom use the word ‘tactical’ to describe some of the requests to reschedule games against them?

“It feels like the start of the season again,” he admitted. “We are just desperate to get it on. We know they are a really good side. But we can’t be bothered about it. We just have to be really eager. The overriding feeling for everyone is just a keenness to get back out there and do what we do.”

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It speaks volumes, about how a once celebrated competition is now viewed within leading circles, that this third round contest appears guaranteed to proceed as planned; despite both sides suffering from coronavirus issues.

But both United and Wolves, eighth in the Premier League table following a string of impressive results under former Sheffield Wednesday assistant Bruno Lage, have good reason for approaching it with the utmost seriousness.

The hosts should view it as possibly their best route into Europe - a prize which would reflect the progress they have made in recent seasons. For United, the trip to the Midlands is an opportunity to dust-off the cobwebs which have enveloped their squad after failing to enjoy a run-out since December 20th.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom is preparing to see his team make its long awaited return to competitive action: David Klein / Sportimage

Heckingbottom, who has won all three of his appearances since taking charge in November, has expressed concerns that spending so long on the training pitch might rob them of momentum. He is justified in doing so and it would therefore be a surprise, as well as a mistake, if he United do not select the strongest starting eleven available to them against opponents they hope to join in the top-flight next term.

“The match won’t provide a yardstick because of the players we’ve got out,” continued Heckingbottom, confirming 11 members of his squad are unavailable for the clash. “We’ve got five subs for this game and we’ll be using them.

“We’ve used a little bit of the preparation from our games against them last season for this one, because we know what to expect from them. But our side, it’s going to be very different. From memory, not a lot of the lads involved in that one are going to be involved in this.”

With the on-loan Morgan Gibbs-White injured and, even if he had been fit, ineligible for selection against his parent club, the meeting with Wolves also promises to be a significant moment for Iliman Ndiaye too. The Frenchman, scorer of a superb solo goal during last month’s victory over Fulham, is the midfielder best equipped to fill the void created by Gibbs-White’s absence. Having been summoned back to Molineux to undergo treatment on the knee injury he suffered at Craven Cottage, one suspects the England under-21 international, who has been United’s most influential player since agreeing to spend the season at Bramall Lane, will be out for longer than the “couple of weeks” than their coaching staff initially predicted.

Sheffield United have not played since beating Fulham at Craven Cottage on December 20: David Klein / Sportimage

If so, that will present Heckingbottom with a major headache as he attempts to haul United into the Championship top six. Ndiate might not possess Gibbs-White’s experience. But, as his effort in west London reminded, he does boast the turn of pace, technique, vision and artistry, to change the course of games.

“Every training session, every game, it’s an opportunity to get closer to where you want to be in my eyes,” Heckingbottom said, revealing Regan Slater will travel to the Midlands despite being wanted by Hull City and Wigan Athletic. “That’s the way we have to look at it and that’s the way the boys are looking at it. If some people miss out, that provides an opening for someone else to stepin and do well.”

Although Lage is expected to make changes to the eleven which beat Manchester United last time out, the mood music surrounding Wolves’ Compton Park training camp suggests the Portuguese, Carlos Carvalhal’s number two at Hillsborough, will select a strong team. Conor Coady, a member of the United side which reached the semi-finals in 2014, is expected to feature while Fabio Silva, Adama Traore and Daniel Podence could also take part.

United, 13th in the table but with matches in hand on everyone above them in the rankings, will still be without Ben Davies although he has returned to training. The same goes for striker Rhian Brewster and on-loan goalkeeper Robin Olsen, who has tested positive for Covid-19 after initially being told he was not carrying the virus.

“Robin tested positive, was then found to be negative and then tested positive again,” Heckingbottom said. “That one was correct.”

“I’m not going to moan about having so many missing because we are just desperate to get back out there again. It’s far from ideal but there’s no point in crying about it because, after all, the one thing we have all been desperate for - staff, players and fans - is to get back out there playing football again.”