James Shield: Sheffield United's change of narrative is welcome ahead of play-off with Nottingham Forest

‘A whole new ball game,’ is how Paul Heckingbottom put it. Or words to that effect.

Thursday, 12th May 2022, 5:05 pm

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He was talking, of course, about the play-offs. Which Sheffield United will take part in again on Saturday, when Nottingham Forest visit Bramall Lane for the first leg of their Championship semi-final.

I get where he is coming from. Although I don’t entirely agree. With the return fixture set to take place at the City Ground on Tuesday, goals are still going to decide who goes on to meet either Luton Town or Huddersfield Town under the arch at Wembley. The laws governing the matches are the same. Heckingbottom, however, has probably forgotten more about the football business than I’ll ever know. And he’s actually been involved in them. As both a manager and a player. So he’ll have first hand experience of the strange things these knockout competitions can do to people. Apparently, according to the 44-year-old, these matches “just feel different”. Before, during and after.

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Anyway, one thing that already does from my perspective as a journalist is the narrative surrounding United as they enter the first of what, fingers, toes and everything else crossed double, will be three successful fixtures.

Heckingbottom’s employers, we don’t need reminding, have been involved in eight of these campaigns before. And they’ve never gone up. Well, they have if you know what I mean. But not by this perilous route.

In the past, that record of woe would have dominated the agenda. In print, on the web and also inside the dressing room. I know that’s true because once, as a United squad and manager I won’t identify out of respect, got ready to take part in one of these double-headers not too long ago, the nervousness around the training ground was almost tangible. The guy at the helm seemed intent on talking about ending that hoodoo. The same went for the blokes under his command. Leaving Shirecliffe, after attending their last press call, I actually felt utterly engulfed by tension myself - so infectious was the sense of trepidation around the building.

Sander Berge helped Sheffield United book their place in the play-offs with his goal against Fulham: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

This time around, the atmosphere is very different. And quite right too.

“We learn from the past,” former German president Joachim Gauck once said. “Because the future is not indifferent to us.”

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

Heckingbottom and his side seem to have taken those words on board. Because any talk about the past has been completely non-existent at Bramall Lane this week. Well, ever since United secured their top six finish by beating Fulham 4-0.

Statistics can be interesting. They often, although not always, reveal illuminating things. What they’ve never done, however, is settle fixtures. No matter how many times someone pretends that XG ratings deliver titles or possession percentages are akin to points.

No member of this team has been involved in any of those previous failures. What happened, say, 19 years ago against Wolverhampton Wanderers after United had knocked out Forest at Bramall Lane, will have any bearing upon events now. Unless people are intent on deciding otherwise.

Thankfully, and not before time, a United side appears to have grasped that. No matter how these contests turn out.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom: Andrew Yates / Sportimage