James Shield: Why it is vital Sheffield United must act - and behave - like a Premier League club in waiting

If, and it remains ‘if’ Sheffield United qualify for the Championship play-offs, it will be a great achievement.
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Sheffield United: Slavisa Jokanovic's gift to his former club's play-off push

Okay, so maybe not quite up there with their four FA Cup successes, the last of which came in 1925. Or, nearly a century later, returning to the Premier League following the second of two promotions under Chris Wilder.

But, make no mistake whatsoever, having inherited squad going nowhere fast when he took charge in November, manager Paul Heckingbottom and his coaching staff have performed wonders to ensure they enter Saturday’s game against Fulham knowing a win will guarantee them a shot at returning to the top flight after being relegated, and relegated pretty emphatically, last season.

Sheffield United have been superb since November: Alistair Langham / SportimageSheffield United have been superb since November: Alistair Langham / Sportimage
Sheffield United have been superb since November: Alistair Langham / Sportimage
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While pundits work themselves into a state of orgasmic frenzy eulogising over Steve Cooper’s work with Nottingham Forest, who were also languishing inside the relegation zone during August’s international break, one hopes Heckingbottom and his assistants will receive the same recognition as the Welshman if United join them in the end of term knockouts. They won’t, of course. But they should, even though the cult of the coach demands that every piece of skill produced by someone on the grass is now automatically attributed, because statisticians and data boffins are taking over football, to the guy in the dugout. (For the benefit of any keyboard warriors preparing to accuse me of crimes against gender, there aren’t any girls or, to the best of my knowledge, non-binary people patrolling the division’s touchlines yet. Oh, and I’d have no issue whatsoever if there was).

Still, as well as United have performed since Heckingbottom’s appointment in November, they won’t have delivered on what they set out to do at the beginning of the campaign if results go their way this weekend. Something, without taking anything away from performances over the past six months, they should be doing anyway. Which, by the former Leeds, Hibernian and Barnsley chief’s own admission recently, is challenging to go up.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James ShieldThe Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield
The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

Arguably the only good thing to come out of previous campaign was that United, who parted company with Wilder in circumstances which were worryingly similar to those which eventually did for his successor Slavisa Jokanovic, endured such woeful results that their team wasn’t picked apart following demotion. Yes, Aaron Ramsdale joined Arsenal in a £26m deal. But John Egan, Sander Berge, Enda Stevens and George Baldock all remained in situ. The same as the supremely talented but also perennially injured Lys Mousset.

And, despite the attempts of some folk to change the narrative, United didn’t spend lavishly or excessively during Wilder’s reign either. Salary costs actually dropped towards the end of his spell in charge and the fees they paid to bring in new additions might have been big by Bramall Lane’s standards but were relatively modest compared to those across the competition as a whole.

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Which brings me, not so neatly, to an important point. Whatever happens against Fulham and hopefully beyond, United’s work away from the technical area must become as effective as what is being produced inside it.

Wes Foderingham has proved a more than able replacement for Aaron Ramsdale: Andrew Yates / SportimageWes Foderingham has proved a more than able replacement for Aaron Ramsdale: Andrew Yates / Sportimage
Wes Foderingham has proved a more than able replacement for Aaron Ramsdale: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

Although a spate of suspicious (some, not all) Covid-19 induced postponements over Christmas and New Year were out of their control, there are suspicions behind the scenes that conditions at United’s training complex also contributed to the glut of injuries they suffered once fixtures resumed. Neither, although credit needs to be given for the speed with which Filip Uremovic was later acquired after suspending his contract with Rubin Kazan, were their operations during the January transfer window as efficient as they should have been.

Much of what Heckingbottom, Stuart McCall and Jack Lester have overseen after taking charge has happened in spite of, not because of, happenings higher up. Even the timing of Henry Mauriss’ proposed takeover, which appears to be progressing about as fast as sloth kitted out in a pair of deep sea divers boots, was pretty damn unhelpful given that it caused a distraction ahead of some crucial matches last month.

Heckingbottom, his assistants and the core of their playing staff have shown they have what it takes. For once, United must put themselves in a position to build upon their good work. Not see it wither away and then, in a decade or so’s time when they’re still trying to regain membership of English sport’s most exclusive club, look back on it with dewy eyes.

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Nothing is guaranteed. But United can definitely go up. Nor, even though Aleksandar Mitrovic scores with greater regularity than the contestants on Love Island, should they enter their meeting with Marco Silva’s side with an inferiority complex. Fulham are already heading for the highest level. Five points clear of second placed AFC Bournemouth, who in turn are six clear of Forest in third, deservedly so. United have already beaten them at Craven Cottage though, thanks to a wonderful solo effort from Iliman Ndiaye. The lad, going back to what we were discussing earlier, was acting purely on instinct when he breezed past several markers before producing a finish so clinical it could have been supplied by Pfizer.

Paul Heckingbottom has been a big hit at Bramall Lane: Andrew Yates / SportimagePaul Heckingbottom has been a big hit at Bramall Lane: Andrew Yates / Sportimage
Paul Heckingbottom has been a big hit at Bramall Lane: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

United deserve a big pat on the back for putting themselves in a position whereby their season can be extended until the end of May. If that happens, and they earn a shot at making an immediate return to the highest level, they must then construct a narrative which reminds people this is what they always believed would happen. Because of the quality within their ranks. Not simply act as if they're happy to be in with a shout of facing their latest opponents and Scott Parker’s charges again later this year.