FIVE things Paul Heckingbottom HAS to do this week at Sheffield United
Four days after losing their manager Chris Wilder and three since being humiliated by Leicester City, Paul Heckingbottom’s performance during his first post-match media conference in charge remains the most professional piece of work produced by anyone still associated with Sheffield United.
Having been officially handed the reins earlier that morning, supposedly until the end of the season, Heckingbottom spoke with clarity, honesty and diplomacy during what threatened to be an awkward inquisition - striking exactly the right balance between paying tribute to his mate, protecting a team which had just been utterly embarrassed but leaving them in no doubt whatsoever that, as they prepare for this weekend’s FA Cup tie at Chelsea, a repeat would be utterly unacceptable.
Despite being helped by the fact that journalists from the written press were limited to only one question each - something which was later blamed on a misunderstanding with the home club’s communications department - Heckingbottom successfully negotiated his way through what could have easily become a car crash. A collision even more painful to watch than United’s 5-0 defeat.
As he begins his first week proper in charge, however, there are clearly more pressing items on the 43-year-old’s agenda than being interrogated by reporters. Although, unless a member of Bramall Lane’s hierarchy volunteers to put themselves in the firing line, Heckingbottom’s briefing ahead of Sunday’s quarter-final in west London will again be dominated by talk about Wilder.
So, as United brace themselves for their meeting with the six-time champions of England, The Star identifies some of the issues he must address behind the scenes before making the journey to Stamford Bridge.
SEPARATE THE POLITICS FROM THE FOOTBALL
Heckingbottom was placed in an unfair position at the KP Stadium. A footballing man, the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian manager, who until Wilder’s departure after nearly five seasons in charge was serving as United’s development coach, should not have been the first person to be publicly grilled on the reasons behind his friend’s exit. That responsibility should have fallen to someone in the boardroom or a member of Bramall Lane’s hierarchy. Admittedly, logistics and legalities might not have made this possible, But everyone involved will understand the point.
Again, although this will be terribly awkward for Heckingbottom, he must urge his employers to take control of the politics. That would allow him to focus on doing his job rather than someone else’s. Clear demarcation is required.
Make no mistake, people were laughing at United following their sacking by City. And that is a worse position to be in than simply getting beat most weeks. Although one former professional turned pundit accused them of “turning it in”, he overstepped the mark. Either because he has inadvertently misread the situation, or deliberately in order to publicise his own show. Let’s be honest, some United players will be distraught by events surrounding Wilder. Others, despite the fact he twice led the club to promotion and then to a ninth placed finish last term, less so. But everyone in display against City, with the exception of Aaron Ramsdale, looked mentally and physically beaten. Heckingbottom has got to get inside their minds.
PROVIDE A SENSE OF PURPOSE
Mathematically, they still have a chance of survival. But then again, the same would go for the Wealdstone Raider if he stepped into the ring with Tyson Fury.
Everyone knows how United’s season will end and so, when they return to Premier League action following their meeting with Thomas Tuchel’s side, they will simply be marking time for the next nine games.
Heckingbottom, therefore, must bring a sense of meaning to a season which might otherwise drift deeper and deeper into mediocrity. Actually, given what United served up in the east Midlands, mediocrity would be desirable. So make that ‘shambolic ineptitude’. The club needs something greater than pride to play for. After handing Iliman Ndiaye his debut as a second-half substitute against City, Heckingbottom would be advised to make the remainder of the campaign all about developing home grown talent. Having spent the last eight months working with United’s under-23’s, Heckingbottom knows who is ready and who isn’t better than most, and tasking the senior professionals with looking after their young colleagues on the pitch might give them a sense of purpose they clearly lack too.
STAMP HIS MARK ON THE SQUAD
It will be difficult, given that United’s squad has been constructed to play the ‘Wilder Way’ - with wing-backs, rather than genuine wingers, providing its only real width. Injuries have limited his room for manoeuvre still further. But Heckingbottom, in order to avoid being painted as someone who is simply the managerial seat warm until a permanent appointment is made, must discover a way of bringing fresh ideas to the table without completely deconstructing the identity United built under his predecessor. Axing those who clearly see their futures elsewhere might be a start. Likewise, promoting others through the age groups.
BLOOD THE BEST YOUNGSTERS
Wilder was reluctant to expose the likes of Ndiaye, Frankie Maguire, Antwoine Hackford and Zak Brunt to the pressure of a relegation battle. Particularly one in the Premier League, where he knew opponents would look to exploit their inexperience and inevitable lack of match-craft in the cruellest and most brutal fashion possible, like a cat teasing a mouse.
Although Wilder calculated, probably correctly, that the potential downsides of pitching them into battle outweighed the benefits - no one enjoys having their weaknesses exposed in front of a global television audience - there have been missed opportunities to introduce some of the Steelphalt Academy’s best graduates in recent weeks.
That is understandable, given that until recently United still harboured slim hopes of avoiding the drop. But now those have effectively disappeared, Heckingbottom should look to accelerate the youngster’s development. On the evidence of last weekend’s contest, they would inject some much needed dynamism into United’s work.