Sheffield United: Paul Heckingbottom must be allowed to stamp his mark on this squad

Sometimes, it’s good to be different. Even radically different if the mood takes you.

Thursday, 20th January 2022, 4:30 pm

But then following the status quo isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. Because if ideas have stood the test of time, it usually means they’re pretty good ones. I say usually as we do seem wedded to some pretty ridiculous ones in this country. Such as the notion that private companies put the interest of consumers before their shareholders. And when they fail, it’s acceptable to give them a handout from the taxpayers even though public ownership is soooo bad.

Football has produced plenty of revolutionary thinkers who have achieved remarkable levels of success. It is also littered with folk who win big simply by tweaking their theories or those who recognise, on occasion, it’s no bad thing to go with the zeitgeist. Yes, Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff changed the face of the game. But so has Pep Guardiola, arguably by learning how to adapt their teachings to the modern age. You see, there’s also an intelligence in knowing when not to try and change things. Absolute upheaval isn’t always the best policy.

The reason people in the game have always talked about consistency - well, ever since it became the fashion to sack a manager at the first hint of trouble - is because it’s important. The same, however, goes for the fact that squads must evolve in order to perform at their maximum. Which brings me neatly to Sheffield United.

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Sheffield United were right to be disappointed with the outcome of their match against Preston North End at Deepdale: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Although Paul Heckingbottom remains confident of signing some new players this month - ones who boost the pool of talent at his disposal rather than fill the void created by departures such as Robin Olsen - obvious progress in terms of recruitment has been slow. There are reasons for that, which the 44-year-old has eloquently outlined on numerous occasions after being appointed in November. But with his predecessor Slavisa Jokanovic also forced to wait until the last knockings of the summer market before being able to make changes - almost exclusively via the loan system - hopefully a pattern is not starting to emerge.

At the time of writing, it has now been exactly 475 days, or nearly 68 weeks, since United made any major purchases. That equates to nearly three transfer windows. Which would be okay if results had been brilliant over that period. But they haven’t. After being relegated from the Premier League last season, United enter Saturday’s game against Luton Town 12th in the Championship table.

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I’m not saying every aspect of the new “strategic vision” outlined by the board during Heckingbottom’s unveiling - well, the aspects that were - is muddled. United World might have an image problem and other presentational issues, but you can understand the thinking behind it. The accent on promoting from within, both players and coaching staff, is commendable. So too, although I still personally have concerns about the decision not to persevere with Jokanovic - one of the sharpest brains operating outside of the English top-flight - was the faith shown in Heckingbottom.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom watches his team in action at Deepdale: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

After impressing at Barnsley, his records at Leeds and Hibernian should be viewed through the prism of ‘right clubs, wrong time’. Time will tell if this gifted individual has fallen into the same trap again. Although, after taking over in a caretaker capacity before Jokanovic’s arrival, he had to accept when the offer came up again. This time, on a permanent basis.

Still, it is also generally accepted that clubs must invest in the ‘here and now’ as well as the future if they want to succeed on the pitch.

So after spending two years at the highest level, it is strange that United didn’t make any actual acquisitions, other than free agent Adlene Guedioura, under Jokanovic. I accept that temporary deals still have a cost involved but believe my point still stands. I’m also concerned why, despite borrowing against things like parachute payments and fees received, they still don’t seem to be able to flex their muscles more impressively in the market.

Sheffield United striker Rhian Brewster in action against Preston North End on Tuesday night: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Supporters deserve clarity. It would also make life a lot easier for Heckingbottom too, given that he is the one forced to explain why targets such as James Hill and John Souttar, who both fitted United’s profile perfectly, have gone elsewhere. Admittedly the latter had personal reasons for staying in Scotland.

Tuesday’s draw against 10 men at Preston North End added to the feeling that United are jaded. An injection of fresh faces would have a rejuvenating effect. Both on the mood on the terraces and inside the dressing room, where the core of this side has now been in place for around three years.

Heckingbottom has some good options at his disposal. The trouble is, none of those who have appeared in United’s last two outings have been brought in by him. Other than, in a roundabout sort of way, Iliman Ndiaye.

In order to make the most of his gifts, to maximise his potential, United must allow Heckingbottom to make a handful of actual purchases. To stamp his personality on things.

Because that is something which is also widely accepted as being a prerequisite in order to fulfil your footballing ambitions. Because even though you need to plan for the future - and show that you are actually acting on those plans - the game waits for no one. No club, United included, exists within a vacuum.