James Shield: Sheffield United's challenge now after play-off defeat to Nottingham Forest

So that’s a wrap.

Thursday, 19th May 2022, 9:57 pm

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A season which initially promised sweet FA and then teased us with so much is over. Well, for Sheffield United and 21 other Championship clubs. But not Huddersfield Town and, to the complete and utter annoyance of everyone associated with Bramall Lane, Nottingham Forest. May the best team win the play-off final later this month. If it is the one supported by the klutz who nutted Billy Sharp following Tuesday’s match at the City Ground, though, thankfully he’ll be watching the celebrations on a black and white portable provided by Her Majesty during a stay at one of Lizzie’s less pleasurable establishments.

Anyway, enough about that. Let’s get back to football. Although regular readers of this column will already be aware it sometimes has a habit of straying into obscure areas.

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Steve Cook of Nottingham Forest with Sander Berge of Sheffield United during Tuesday's breathless match at the City Ground: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

United will be gutted, absolutely gutted, at how their doubleheader against Steve Cooper’s side turned out.

After failing to turn for the first leg in South Yorkshire 72 hours earlier, they arrived in the east Midlands with a bang. Well, after falling 3-1 behind on aggregate at least when Brennen Johnson stretched the hosts advantage. After Morgan Gibbs-White and John Fleck had levelled that particular scoreline, there was a five minute period when Forest looked shot. If United had scored then and they very nearly did - there would have been no comeback.

The real reason Forest survived

Morgan Gibbs-White has been a huge hit for Sheffield United: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

What saved Forest, for my money at least, wasn’t Brice Samba despite his heroics between the posts. It was the introduction of Keinan Davis, whose pace and presence helped get them re-establish some sort of grip on the contest. United, with Rhian Brewster, Oli McBurnie and the aforementioned Sharp watching from the touchline due to injury, lacked the ability to ramp up the pressure with a change of personnel when the hosts were teetering on the brink of disaster.

Which brings me, not so neatly or succinctly, to the main thrusts of the article: What will United look like next season and how should they react to what was a gut-wrenching defeat? The answers are probably ‘Very different’ and with ‘Critical, sober analysis’.

Before I go on, and explain why Paul Heckingbottom, Stuart McCall and Jack Lester should be allowed to help shape the club’s future, I just want to state I was a big admirer of former manager Slavisa Jokanovic. Still am, in fact. He's a shrewd judge of talent with a good sense of humour. At United, however, I think he was a victim of circumstances. Ones, even after you consider he took over following a catastrophic relegation and in the middle of a Covid-19 pandemic which wrecked his bedding in process, made even tougher by some things I’ve highlighted in the past. I’ll do so again in the future. But that’s for another time.

Paul Heckingbottom has performed well at the helm of Sheffield United: Darren Staples / Sportimage

Heckingbottom’s work should be considered on its own merits. Not compared to that of his predecessor.

The track record

And his first six months at the helm have been nothing short of superb. Both on the pitch - where he lifted United from 16th to fifth in the table - and off it. He spoke superbly, I thought, in the very testing moments which followed his squad’s shoot-out with Forest.

United, we know, don’t have much money. So what they need is a strategy. One which doesn’t simply rely on bringing talent through their youth system. Although there’s some mighty fine youngsters on the books at Shirecliffe.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

Heckingbottom has shown he has the intellect to devise one. And crucially, the humility to ensure it is not ‘owned’ by him. Eventually he will depart. Although hopefully not for some time yet. And successful clubs, over the long rather than simply short and medium term, don’t have to tear up their plans and completely start over when the guy at the top departs. The top of the first team that is.

Heckingbottom isn’t infallible. It would be a mistake to fete him as such. But together with his assistants and recruitment specialists Paul Mitchell and Jared Dublin, they clearly know how to get a tune out of United. And results, winning 16 and drawing seven of 30 matches in charge, are what have ultimately reconnected this team with its followers. The stuff about understanding the personality of the region and what makes its people tick makes a nice line for journalists. But if things had been different, if Jokanovic had enjoyed more success going about things his way, I don’t believe for one moment that folk would have been staging demonstrations calling for the return of overlapping centre-halves and the heavy metal approach of the Chris Wilder-era. Wilder excelled because he was in possession of the facts, grasped the situation he had walked into and is a damn good manager. Heckingbottom and his colleagues have shown many of the same traits.

The essential ingredient

The squad deserve huge credit too. Because, when all is said and done, it always boils down to the players.

Some of those on display at Forest will depart. Never say never but I can’t see Gibbs-White returning. Sander Berge and others could attract interest from elsewhere.

But there is enough ability and experience in the building to ensure, providing the situation is handled correctly and some tough choices are made, that United can build on what they have achieved lately.

Vibrant - and I’ve chosen that word deliberately - new additions with pizzazz and pace will freshen things up and help prolong the careers of Sharp, Chris Basham and other knowledgeable campaigners. Providing the overwhelming majority are acquired before United enter the closing stages of this summer’s warm-up schedule.

Okay, they fell short of hitting their target. Which was delivering a promotion.

But United showed bravery, guts and heart earlier this week. And that deserves respect.

The task now is to ensure the previous campaign is the start of something. Not the end of an era.