Sheffield United: The partnership between players and supporters that is helping fuel a promotion push

Three months ago, when he first took charge of Sheffield United on a permanent basis, results were Paul Heckingbottom’s number one priority.

Friday, 25th February 2022, 4:30 pm

Low on points and even lower on confidence, the squad he inherited was full of proven winners. But after being emphatically relegated from the Premier League, losing 29 of their 38 outings in the competition last term, translating talent and experience into effective displays appeared to be beyond them. Sixteenth in the table following Slavisa Jokanovic’s final game at the helm, Heckingbottom knew things needed to change quickly - or even better, immediately - if United were to stand a realistic chance of delivering promotion this season.

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But as he successfully went about solving that particular conundrum, overseeing three straight victories after replacing the Serb, the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief was busy overseeing a much more abstract project. It revolved around personality, perception and constructing a squad not only capable of beating opponents but also in a fashion he felt, having grown up in South Yorkshire’s old coal mining and steel belt, reflected the values of the community it represented. Wearing United’s colours, Heckingbottom had clearly decided, should be a gesture of support for a set of cultural values as well as solidarity with the team.

“I’m from here,” he said, before Wednesday’s breathless encounter with Blackburn Rovers lifted United to sixth. “I know what people from this area want to see from their footballers and how they expect them to go about things - with honesty and determination. I’ve always maintained, ever since taking the job, that we should have the same personality as the people we’re going out there for. Credit to the players, because I know they have.”

THE MOST IMPORTANT DOUBLE ACT

Heckingbottom’s motives were partly self-serving. As United’s under-23’s coach, he witnessed how effectively Chris Wilder had harnessed the power of the crowd during the club’s march from the third to their first tier of the domestic game. But there was a sporting rationale too.

Carving out a distinct identity - or rather, reprising the one created by his predecessor - would also bring tangible benefits on the pitch according to Heckingbottom’s thinking. With United’s schedule being disrupted by a series of postponements over the Christmas and New Year period, tomorrow’s visit to Millwall will be their seventh match in the space of three weeks; a schedule which, even though injuries are now beginning to limit his options, makes naming a settled starting eleven almost impossible.

Sheffield United have re-energised their passionate fans with a series of battling displays: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“From day one, I wanted us to be an aggressive team that plays on the front foot,” Heckingbottom said. “I wanted us to be one that tried to create chances and get people in the box, But then, when we didn’t have the ball, one that fought really hard to get it back.

“We might change how we go about things slightly, or bring a different dynamic. But those things, they are the identity of the team. And identity is important because it means, whenever someone comes in, they know exactly what is expected of them no matter what their role is. That’s why identity is so important for me.”

“The biggest compliment you can pay any manager and their staff,” Heckingbottom continued, “Is that if they were dressed in a different colour, wearing a different kit or whatever, people would still be able to tell who that team is. Even if there were changes, they’d still know that was your team.”

TWO TEAMS WITH MUCH IN COMMON

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom and his assistant Stuart McCall: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Although neither set of supporters will care to admit it, particularly during the heat of what promises to be a typically feisty Championship encounter, the trip to south London pits United against opponents with whom they have plenty in common. Surrounded by aristocratic rivals or rivals with aristocratic aspirations, Millwall are blue collar and proud. Yes, The Den’s lunatic fringe is capable of overstepping the mark in all sorts of different ways. But it is impossible not to admire the overwhelming majority of their fan base who, in raucous but acceptable fashion, enjoy sticking two fingers up to the establishment and celebrate their side’s working class roots. You get the impression, after listening to him bemoan football’s lurch towards “corporatism” during a recent interview, that Heckingbottom, like Wilder, views United and Millwall as kindred spirits on a number of levels.

“My players, they’re honest and they fight for each other,” he said. “I think it’s important that, how you go about things, it reflects the community you represent. I don’t like it when clubs lose touch with their roots, or their communities. I don’t think that’s good for them or the game.”

The links between United and Gary Rowett’s employers aren’t just emblematic. Oliver Burke and Luke Freeman moved from Bramall Lane to the capital during the last transfer window. Neither is available for selection this weekend. But former United goalkeeper George Long is, although Bartosz Bialkowski is expected to start between the posts as Millwall search for a fourth straight win.

STRENGTH IN ADVERSITY

Gary Rowett, the manager of Sheffield United's latest opponents Millwall: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Heckingbottom’s delight at the sight of his side prevailing over Rovers - Ben Davies scoring a last gasp winner following Charlie Goode’s sending-off - was tempered by news that Chris Basham’s name has been added to a casualty list which already includes David McGoldrick, Jayden Bogle and Rhian Brewster; United’s record signing.

With Goode now suspended, United’s squad is being stretched to its limits. But events during the meeting with Tony Mowbray’s side, who saw Reda Khadra’s penalty attempt saved by Wes Foderingham soon after the defender’s dismissal, has convinced Heckingbottom they possess the strength of character to cope. Particularly with after mobilising a fan base energised by the sight of United travelling to the capital unbeaten in nine and hoping to record a sixth straight clean sheet.

“To see us building that bond with them, it’s brilliant,” said Heckingbottom. “Because it helps us. It helps the players. It is helping them get results.”

Sheffield United defender George Baldock celebrates the win over Blackburn Rovers with the supporters: Simon Bellis / Sportimage