Sixth in the table ahead of Wednesday’s visit to Blackpool and on course to qualify for the Championship play-offs, life should be pretty good for United and their manager right now. But after overcoming most of the challenges he has faced since November, after being tasked with rescuing a club still reeling from relegation, Heckingbottom finds himself confronting arguable his toughest test yet: How to deliver a promotion with, thanks to an injury crisis of almost unprecedented proportions, almost half of your first team squad missing?
“I’m not going to deny it, there’s a bit of a siege mentality building up among the group,” he tells The Star, estimating that “around 50 percent of our outfield lads” will miss the game at Bloomfield Road. “So maybe that’s a good thing? I don’t know. What I do know is that we’re going to need the fans more than ever now, because of the energy and the positivity that they can bring.
“Ultimately, it’s down to us and what we do on the pitch. We understand that and accept that. But because of everything that’s going on, they, the supporters, can give us a real push.
“Everyone is sticking together behind the scenes. This might have made us even tighter. But we definitely need that push our fans give us.”
Heckingbottom has grown used to dealing with adversity during his coaching career. After guiding Barnsley out of League One on a League Two budget, Leeds were a basket case when he was lured to Elland Road. Hibernian, his next posting, changed owners soon after appointing him. But recent events at United, where the casualty list now reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of Bramall Lane’s leading names, are testing his powers of persuasion and patience to the limit.
Already missing the likes of Rhian Brewster, Jayden Bogle, Chris Basham and George Baldock, Heckingbottom saw Oli McBurnie limp-out of Saturday’s defeat at Coventry City after suffering a dead leg while Charlie Goode, one of only two signings he made during the January transfer window, has returned to his parent club Brentford for treatment after being diagnosed with cartilage damage.
“He needs an injection to clean the thing out. Charlie’s down there at the moment but should be back with us soon, although he’ll probably be out until after the international break.”
United’s fitness problems are now so acute they are influencing Heckingbottom’s in-game decision-making as well as team selections.
“Yes, that’s definitely happening, that’s certainly the case,” he says. “Take Ozzy (Ben Osborn) for example. He’s only just back from a muscle injury and in our last one, even though we are chasing a goal, I knew I probably had to bring him off because of that. It has to come into our thinking. Can you imagine, as well as losing, how bad we’d have felt if we’d left him out there and then seen him come off too?”
“It’s changing how we train as well,” continues Heckingbottom, revealing he has commissioned an investigation into what has caused the issue. “We’ve been back out on the grass, priming the lads for Blackpool. We’ve got physical work to do but obviously, as you can probably understand, we’re tempering that a little bit. One of the things we’re trying to do is make sure that psychologically they are spot on. Because if the mind is good, and they should be in a good frame of mind given all of the good things they’ve done, then players often find that their bodies follow. If your head space is right, that can only help. And we think, in fact we know, it is.”
Although he recently confessed the situation is causing him sleepless nights, the fact United remain in contention for a top six finish only embellishes the reputations of Heckingbottom, his assistant Stuart McCall and head of player development Jack Lester. Appointed four months ago, when Slavisa Jokanovic paid the price for their poor start to the campaign, last weekend’s 4-1 loss in Warwickshire was only their fourth defeat in 18 outings since taking charge.
“I watched it back and, to be honest, it was worse than I thought,” Heckingbottom admits. “But you have to put things into context. Was it because of everything that’s happened? Maybe.
“Do you know what? Even though we didn’t shy away from anything that happened there, I was actually as calm as I probably have been after a match. That was because I wanted to get the message across, in a constructive way, and make sure it doesn’t happen again. We’ve studied it and now we want to move on.”
Starting, Heckingbottom hopes, with a victory over opponents who are 12th in the table following wins over Reading, Stoke City and Swansea City.
“We’ve just had a reminder of what can happen if you aren’t right at it in this division,” he says. “That’s why how I react is important. I think there were issues in pre-season and then we’ve had so many games lately, because of all the stuff with Covid-19 where we seemed to be on the receiving end of outbreaks elsewhere and maybe even other people’s mis-management of it and gamesmanship if you like. But we fought through that and we’ll fight through it again.
“As I’ve always told the boys, and I’ll tell them again, when they are right on point then I think anyone will struggle to beat them.
“We’re all in this together, everyone associated with the club. And with that mentality, I’m confident we can fight through pretty much anything that’s out in our way.”