Paul Heckingbottom's fearless Sheffield United approach is paying dividends so far
It didn’t take Paul Heckingbottom long at all to re-stamp his mark on Sheffield United’s first-team squad after being appointed as the Blades’ new manager late last year.
A video released to United’s social media channels from Heckingbottom’s first training session in permanent charge showed him fired up, as he looked to remind his charges of the non-negotiables he demands under his charge.
Heckingbottom is often referenced by players as a good man, as well as a good manager and coach. He is personable and honest, but has a streak that means he is also a man it is unwise to upset and led to United’s social media team reaching for the bleep button as they edited the footage from that first session.
“We’re all going to f*****g lose the ball,” he said, as a bemused Rhian Brewster looked on. “We’re going to f*** up every day. Not bothered. Win the ball back.”
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Heckingbottom does not want his players playing safe. But he also appreciates that taking the difficult option, to try and make things happen, takes bravery and courage, especially in front of a crowd so unforgiving as United’s at times.
It was why he refused to publicly castigate Jack Robinson recently, after a costly error away at Wolves in the FA Cup. Or appreciates the craft of Iliman Ndiaye, a player he rates so highly after blooding him in the Premier League during his spell as United’s interim boss last season.
Heckingbottom appreciates how much football is played between the ears, rather than just with the feet. And the approach has certainly paid dividends so far; United travel to Peterborough this weekend having lost once under their new manager, and that was a game he was forced to watch from home after testing positive for Covid-19.
“The message to all the players, I say it all the time, is that we’ll all make mistakes,” Heckingbottom said ahead of the trip to London Road, where his side could make up some more ground on the play-off places.
“I make them all the time. We reflect on them every day. That’s part of our job. I say that to the players; no-one means to make a mistake. What I will be angry at is a lack of effort and a lack of energy and a lack of bravery to get on the ball.
“While ever you’re giving your best, you’ll improve. Mistakes are part and parcel. Obviously, if you make too many you won’t play.
“But if you’re not being brave and not risking anything, playing safe all the time, we’ll not get where we want to be. We’ll accept the mistakes as long as they’re for the right reasons.
“But we demand the energy and workrate and bravery to get on the ball.”
Whisper it quietly around some sections of Bramall Lane but in some ways, it’s a return to the old-school values that saw United enjoy so much recent success under one of Heckingbottom’s predecessors, Chris Wilder.
Slavisa Jokanović’s sessions were more drill-based, as the Serb looked to impress his methods upon a squad built to play a different way. A return to more familiar methods has reaped rewards so far – and United hope that Heckingbottom’s approach can lead them all the way to Wembley and beyond.