Half of Paul Heckingbottom’s squad weren’t happy. And they let the coaching staff know it. Whilst being teased and then egged on by the rest of their team mates.
“There’s a real hunger involved there,” Chris Basham said, confessing that rows, spats and disagreements are now a regular occurrence at Shirecliffe. “If you don’t win your eleven a side games, and we like to have one of those as regularly as possible, then you end up doing press-ups or something pretty similar. So if you lose, you’re pretty hacked off. But if you come out on the right end then, well, that’s a really good feeling.”
People have spent hours poring over footage of United’s matches this season to identify why, having replaced Slavisa Jokanovic as manager at the end of November, Heckingbottom’s results are much better than the Serb.
Reverting to a formation which, whilst not mirroring the one Chris Wilder employed en route to two promotions before departing 10 months ago following a disagreement with the board, bears a number of similarities is frequently cited. So, with Heckingbottom enjoying a spell in caretaker charge last term, is the fact he already knows the personalities of those under his command.
Although Basham insists neither of those are responsible, he admitted the latter is closer to the truth.
Jokanovic, by his own admission, was obsessed by tactics, patterns and repetition - with members of the Fulham and Watford teams he led into the top-flight describing how drills formed the core of their daily routines.
Heckingbottom is also interested in science, strategies and data loads. But, according to Basham, he combines them with ideas which many Sunday and non-league players would probably recognise.
“We’ve got fines every day in training now,” the centre-half said. “They’re £10 and £5 if you lose. I collect them so that’s all good for me.
“It’s just a bit of fun really, and all the money is either going to go to charity or for a round robin for some of the staff at the training ground who look after us, because the skipper (Billy Sharp) always organises one of those every year.
“Basically, the idea is just to make sure we have that mentality of winning games.”
United had been scheduled to appear at Deepdale on Boxing Day, before the fixture was rearranged at North End’s request when they told the EFL a Covid-19 outbreak meant they lacked the necessary number of players. Games against Hull City, Middlesbrough and Queens Park Rangers also fell by the wayside over the Christmas and New Year period, meaning United will cross the Pennines in 14th despite winning their first three league outings under Heckingbottom before Saturday’s defeat at Derby County.
“We got three wins to begin with, and one in Slav’s last match, so it was a real kick in the teeth to get those called off,” Basham said. “But we’ve just got to get on with it now.”