Sheffield United: Why Coventry City could be an even tougher test than Middlesbrough

An hour after the final whistle, when he began dissecting Sheffield United’s victory over Chris Wilder’s Middlesbrough, Paul Heckingbottom was still trying to pretend the result was no more significant than, let’s say, last month’s evisceration of Swansea City or win at St Andrews.

Thursday, 10th March 2022, 4:34 pm

It was a bravura performance from a bright young manager. But just like the narrative surrounding Tuesday’s fixture and his team’s breathless shift, pure theatre too. Heckingbottom knew, as he addressed an audience of journalists inside Bramall Lane’s media suite, this was a hugely significant moment. Not only in United’s season. But also his own career.

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“It’s something we’ve got to build on, use to drive us forward even more,” Heckingbottom insisted again following today’s training session, still refusing to acknowledge the obvious. “The excitement might grow, people will start talking about all sorts of different things. Us? We’re just thinking about the next one.”

On Saturday, at Coventry City, United face a different kind of test to the one they passed with flying colours when Wilder returned to South Yorkshire. That, partly because of Middlesbrough’s position in the table but mostly thanks to the identity of their commander-in-chief, was also about controlling their emotions. Channelling the drama of the occasion, the pressure and the nerves, into a calculating exhibition of attacking intent.

But inside the bowl still commonly referred to as the Ricoh Arena - a regional building society recently acquired its naming rights - United must find a way of recreating all of that on a much more humble stage. Which could, given the psychological and physical investment they put into Tuesday’s assignment, could prove even tougher than beating opponents led by the man who lifted them from the third to the first tier of English football in only three seasons.

“I really like Coventry, the way they go about things,” Heckingbottom said. “They want to get forward and play forward. There’s very few games, well those that I’ve seen anyway, when they haven’t caused people problems.”

Tuesday was an important night for Heckingbottom as well as his squad. Fifth in the table, United dealt a blow to a direct rival’s hopes of reaching the play-offs. In the process, they also cemented the 44-year-old’s relationship with the home support. One of the bulwarks of Wilder’s regime was its relationship with United’s fans. Previously the club’s under-23’s coach, Heckingbottom watched from ringside as his friend not only rebuilt a squad but also its bond with the terraces. Appointed on a permanent basis in November, the brutal manner in which Middlesbrough were dismantled promises to be Heckingbottom’s own legacy moment.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom is building his pwn legacy at Bramall Lane: Isaac Parkin / Sportimage

“They’ve been brilliant with us, really brilliant,” he said. “They should never under-estimate what a help they are, what a difference they make to how the lads perform.”

“We know it works both ways, though,” Heckingbottom continued. “The way the lads are playing, the way they are trying to go about things, I think that excites people too. I think they’ve bought into it which is great.

“Results are obviously the biggest thing, so hopefully they continue.”

Despite referencing the work of United’s analytical department after Middlesbrough had been dispatched 4-1, Heckingbottom believes the game is essentially about emotion. “There’s always lots of statistics, lots of questions. They’re important but if you believe in things like that too much, you let then decide how you work.” Cold, calculating and ruthless as they overwhelmed the visitors from Teesside - “I’ve got no complaints, we were second best in every department,” Wilder would later acknowledge - the big game mentality Heckingbottom’s men had displayed when beating Blackburn Rovers a fortnight earlier was again in evidence.

After beating Middlesbrough on Tuesday, Sheffield United head to Coventry City this weekend: Isaac Parkin / Sportimage

In terms of the race for the Premier League, or at least securing a shot at it postseason, the trip to Warwickshire is another huge fixture for a team now only five points behind second placed AFC Bournemouth. But with all due respect to Mark Robins’ side, whose average gate this term is a shade over 19,000, it doesn’t feel like it.

“There’s so many teams playing each other who will fancy their chances of getting in the play-offs,” said Heckingbottom, reminding that Coventry are in 11th. “Teams will look as if they’re out and then naturally get brought back into it. We’ve got a lot of tough games left. It’s game by game. Each game there is something on it. They will get more intense as we go on.”

After edging past Rovers, United had entered their meeting with Middesbrough on the back of two indifferent results; losing at Millwall and then drawing with Nottingham Forest, who saw Ryan Yates snatch a 95th minute equaliser after Billy Sharp’s opener. During both of those outings, United appeared to be suffering from fatigue. Understandable, given they have competed nine times since the beginning of February.

Charlie Goode, sent-off during the meeting with Tony Mowbray’s squad, is available again following suspension although a cartilage issue could rule him out. But John Fleck is out after aggravating a groin injury. With Chris Basham, David McGoldrick, Rhian Brewster and Jayden Bogle also absent and George Baldock making tentative progress in his battle to recover from a knee complaint, fitness issues could be the biggest threat to United’s hopes of qualifying for the top six.

Sheffield Have climbed from 16th to fifth since appointing Paul Heckingbottom: Darren Staples / Sportimage

“John will be out for a while, but there’s been no need for a scan,” Heckingbottom said. “We are talking days rather than weeks. With Bash, he won’t be back before the international break. We wanted to play it down. We didn’t want everyone to know that the right side had gone, which hopefully people will understand.”