James Shield: It's impossible to under-estimate the job Sheffield United's Paul Heckingbottom has performed
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There’s enough crap in the world, let alone football, not to let our hair down when an opportunity comes along.
One of those presented itself at Bramall Lane on Wednesday night, when Sheffield United secured a place in the Premier League next term. Goals from Sander Berge and Anel Ahmedhodzic sealed the victory over West Bromwich Albion which means, as they prepare to contest their final home match of the season this afternoon, United are guaranteed to finish second behind leaders Burnley.
Make no mistake whatsoever, this was a team effort. Berge and Ahmedhodzic, plus Iliman Ndiaye whose ingenuity created the Norwegian’s opener, inevitably dominated the headlines immediately after the match. But as their manager commented afterwards, the three points his team collected following a tough encounter in midweek wouldn’t have sent them up had, let’s say for example, Swansea City hadn’t been beaten at the Liberty Stadium in September. Or Vincent Kompany’s men, by a 5-2 margin, two months later.
The ‘cult of the coach’ as I call it is a dangerous phenomena which places too much emphasis on those who patrol the touchline. Ultimately it’s those out there on the pitch who deliver results. And if they’re no good then, not even the combined brainpower of Brian Clough, Arrigo Saachi, Sir Alex Ferguson and Johan Cruyff could ensure those are positive.
Still, with no fear whatsoever of falling foul of my introduction, I don’t think it’s possible to overstate what a superb job Paul Heckingbottom has performed since taking charge of United. Make no mistake whatsoever, this wasn’t a silver spoon accomplishment. No matter how some observers might portray it. Most of what United have achieved of late has been in spite of what they haven’t got. Not what they have.
Yes, the 45-year-old inherited a talented squad which was under-performing at the time. The speed with which he resurrected its fortunes, together with lieutenants Stuart McCall, Jack Lester and other members of staff, was impressive. The fact United have been able to maintain the form they displayed immediately after Heckingbottom’s appointment, which saw them reach the Championship play-off semi-finals last term, has been doubly so. That proves the methods he employs and the strategies he has devised have solid foundations. They’re not just quick fixes which eventually implode.
This season, and let’s not pretend otherwise, has stretched Heckingbottom’s skills to the limit. He was able to spend a fee on only one permanent signing last summer and, after learning his employers were under a transfer embargo during the January window, actually emerged from it with a numerically weaker squad than he’d been working with before Christmas following Reda Khadra’s departure.
Yes, the board deserve credit for not selling Berge and Ndiaye back then to raise what are clearly some much needed funds. But the fact Heckingbottom felt compelled to speak out, forcefully but diplomatically stressing that he would not publicly support any decision to move on one or both, made it clear he felt there was a battle to fight in the first place.
Hopefully Heckingbottom had a bloody sore head when he finalised United’s preparations for today’s game against Preston North End. He deserves it, if you get my drift. Because he’s been bloody brilliant. Often in extremely testing circumstances. How many of his counterparts, for example, were forced to clear snow off their training complexes’ pitches during a recent cold snap? Well, those whose employers have installed undersoil heating anyway? The Randox Health Academy now boasts such a system. But it’s pretty redundant if there’s not enough oil in the pipes to actually fire it up.
In a division as gruelling as the Championship, United’s failure to strengthen midway through the campaign could have been a real issue. But it wasn’t. Thanks not only to the durability and character of those under his command but also the way Heckingbottom arranged their workload. Together with McCall and Lester, he also refused to burden them with an unwanted emotional baggage by ensuring talk of takeovers and other administrative issues did not become a regular topic of conversation in the dressing room. Players aren’t daft. They’ll have known some of what was going on. But not, I suspect, the full extent.
Once they’ve completed their remaining assignments, everyone in the United boot room deserves a damn good rest. But that isn’t a luxury which can be extended to those in the boardroom who, following the apparent collapse of Dozy Mmobuosi’s proposed buyout, must now confront the fact that 14 members of this history-making squad are set to either leave or be out of contract shortly. Another 10 are about to enter the final year of their existing agreements. That is not a healthy situation to be in, even though the powers-that-be are quick to stress some of those deals contain extensions loaded in United’s favour. Triggering these clauses won’t solve the matter. It will only kick the can down the road.
The next few weeks are going to be extremely busy at United. Busier than they should have been had their administrative operations, through no fault of those actually at the coalface, been as slick as their sporting ones.
Heckingbottom deserves all the praise in the world for how he has handled himself in the job. Those above the former full-back owe him a huge debt of gratitude. The best way they can repay him is by ensuring, for as long as he remains in post, that going forward he is able to go about it without any avoidable hindrances.