James Shield: Disagreeing with Sheffield United's manager and misdirected anger
Heckingbottom, quite sensibly, wants to keep a lid on things. He’s mentioned more times than anyone cares to remember about how a sense of entitlement could be the biggest threat to United’s chances of going up automatically. So he doesn’t want anyone thinking, as they prepare for their trip to Blackburn Rovers, that if beating Harry Kane and company isn’t a problem then doing the same to Jon Dahl Tomasson’s men won’t be either. Heckingbottom won’t be too concerned about that actually happening. Particularly after, before warming-up for Spurs by beating Watford, United had suffered back to back defeats. But it won’t do any harm to keep mentioning it. And his words are almost certainly designed to resonate as much on the terraces as they are the dressing room.
Although he wants to compartmentalise United’s season, divorce their progress in the cup from their on-going campaign in the Championship, for me the two can go hand in hand. Because how can the players who put Spurs to the sword - many of whom probably won’t start in Lancashire - not be infused with confidence by a performance which was as close to perfect as possible in the circumstances - tactically, determination-wise and also in terms of its discipline?
The body of work United produced against the visitors from north London should be a template for the rest of their campaign. And with a quarter-final against yes, Rovers again looming on the horizon, those who featured against Cristian Stellini’s men are certain to retain their focus over the coming weeks as they try to guarantee themselves a start at Wembley. Should, of course, United get there.
That will guarantee even greater competition for places. Help ensure standards remain high when fatigue, both emotional and physical, begins to creep in. The cup, by Heckingbottom’s own admission, has provided a mental release from the grind of Championship football. So, whichever way you look at it, the two are a marriage made in heaven. But Rovers will be tough. Twice.
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•If Mikel Arteta chose to bang on about it - or bang on about it again to be exact - you’d barely be able to move for folk sagely nodding their heads and ruminating about the state of the modern game.
The same goes for Jurgen Klopp, Antonio Conte, Eddie Howe and anyone else in charge of one of the so-called fashionable clubs. Graham Potter too, assuming he is still in a job by the time this column goes to print. Oh, and the so-called expert analysts who now dominate the media - the ones who spend more time chasing headlines than they do actually explaining anything - can work out whether confected anger is a good thing or not. (Only a fortnight ago, I listened to one former player on a radio show castigate him for keeping his cool on the touchline, only for her to slaughter another member of the managerial profession for failing to set an example to youngsters with his over-the-top antics on the touchline).
But when Heckingbottom raised the subject towards the end of last month, there was barely a murmur of outrage or concern from these rent-a-gobs on the airwaves. Many of whom seem to be squeezing out the more erudite thinkers who actually provide some insight rather than create clickbait on the internet. The issue I’m talking about is fixture scheduling.
Usually, I don’t have much sympathy for footballers or football coaches who complain about a quick turnaround in games. Because surely supremely fit athletes are able to perform two or three times a week without putting themselves at risk of serious injury. Okay, so it might mean a little bit less time to prepare on the training pitch. But surely it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out, if you’re competing on a Saturday and then a Tuesday, that it’s an idea to adjust your training schedule?
United, though, have been tucked up by the folk who organise the league calendar. Second in the table, they contest a crucial game against fourth placed Rovers this lunchtime. That’s less than 72 hours, because its been selected for live television broadcast, after their fifth round clash with Spurs. At such a pivotal stage of the season, having recently received a reminder that their grip on an automatic promotion slot isn’t quite as strong as it might appear, Heckingbottom has every reason to be angry. It’s not the first time this has happened either.
But the 45-year-old must ensure that his anger is directed towards the right place. Don’t blame SKY, even though they are an easy target for supporters who quite rightly protest when they are left out of pocket by late date changes. Blame those supposedly in charge of the game, for effectively handing over control of it to companies whose responsibility is to their viewers - not players, coaches or match-going fans - in return for a hefty wedge of cash. And also blame the clubs themselves for going along with it. How often do you hear a manager, in the same position as Heckingbottom, publicly urge his directors to petition for the sport to claw back some power even if it means accepting a smaller broadcast payment? The answer is, you don’t.