Could Sheffield United be in better hands? I doubt it - Alan Biggs' Column

In an age of metrics, sometimes the rewards are measured by looking beyond them.

By Alan Biggs
Wednesday, 2nd February 2022, 12:00 pm

Take Paul Heckingbottom at Sheffield United. If you’d taken the Blades manager’s bare statistics at face value - as some did - he wouldn’t have stood out for one of the Championship’s most hazardous jobs.

Those who took the circumstances into account can acknowledge that, while there is plenty to question in other areas, the Blades hierarchy acted wisely in hiring him. And putting fan favourites in Stuart McCall and Jack Lester alongside.

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Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom has taken a long road t this job at Bramall Lane

Circumstances apply here too. Hecky was the right man in all respects for the somewhat scaled-down status of the club and its ambitions, limited by finance, to rebuild from youth.

Which is not to slight a man who doesn’t share that perception. Any limit in ambition, that is.

That’s also why he’s right for this job when his previous record might say otherwise. The sheer defiance that’s gone into seven games, five wins, one draw and one defeat. Sixteen points and a real sight of the play-offs.

In his second Oakwell spell in caretaker charge, Heckingbottom brilliantly led Barnsley to promotion from League One in 2016 via that same route.

Then came the bare stats that lie about his ability. A win percentage of under 28% as Barnsley toughed it out in a higher league that predictably found their resources wanting.

Next an ill-fated move to a chaotically-run Leeds United where, having won just a quarter of his games, he was sacked after only four months.

Cue a return in Scotland with Hibernian, which lasted just nine months as a good start petered out.

From all this there were doubts - not shared by Chris Wilder, who made Hecky the Blades Under 23s coach in 2020. And from there an impressive Premier League stint as caretaker post Wilder and now the top job.

What strikes you about him, as with Wilder, is realism and honesty. He looks you in the eye and speaks the truth as he sees it, without histrionics or drama but with a quiet, steely intensity.

A cheaper option he may have been after the flirtation with Slavisa Jokanovic but be in no doubt that behind the scenes he is not a “yes man.”

Heckingbottom clearly has the respect of the players and has won that with the fans.

I doubt United could be in better hands; just hope that those qualities of honesty and realism are taken for what they are - as the entitled expertise of a real football man rather than dissent - when it comes to reshaping the club’s future beyond next summer.

But it strikes me he’d prefer not to leave that to chance. This right now is the big chance and he knows it.

If positivity is any guide, he will take it.