Heckingbottom’s first match in caretaker charge of the Premier League’s bottom club ended in a 5-0 defeat at the home of former champions Leicester City less than 24 hours after Wilder’s exit was officially confirmed by Bramall Lane’s hierarchy.
Previously United’s under-23’s coach, Heckingbottom enjoyed spells in charge of Barnsley, Leeds United and Hibernian before returning to South Yorkshire at Wilder’s behest as part of a restructuring exercise in July.
Acknowledging both the timing and the manner of the 53-year-old’s departure has caused a great deal of upset behind the scenes - despite being described as “by mutual consent”, Wilder is known to have disagreed with United’s owners about a number of issues including recruitment policy - Heckingbottom said: “It’s not easy. It’s not a nice situation. From a purely personal point of view, I came to work with Chris, I came here to work for him. The same, obviously, goes for a lot of the lads who were out there too. It was a very emotional dressing room in there afterwards, for reasons you can probably guess. I’m not going to go into the details, but he was the leader for those lads on a daily basis and now that’s ended.”
“It’s difficult for me too, because Chris isn’t just someone I respect greatly, he’s also a mate,” Heckingbottom continued. “The fact I’ve been in Chris’ shoes before, the fact I’ve been in the players’ shoes before, the fact I know what they’ll be thinking and how they’ll be feeling, that will help me deal with it because I understand it. Hopefully that will stand me in good stead.”
Despite insisting events during the build-up to the game had affected United’s performance, Heckingbottom warned “it would be wrong to make excuses” if there is a repeat when they face Chelsea in the FA Cup quarter-finals this weekend.
With Wilder’s former assistant Alan Knill remaining on staff for the time being at least - a situation Heckingbottom would “love to see” continue - former AFC Bournemouth manager Jason Tindall is also set to begin working with United’s squad today after being appointed as number two, initially on a short term basis.
Confirming he spoke with Wilder, who twice led United to promotion, before making the trip to the east Midlands, Heckingbottom said: “I’ve seen how well those boys have been doing under Chris - okay, you can say this season hasn’t gone well but overall they’ve been brilliant - and you can see the emotion because of what’s happened suddenly made this game even bigger than it was. I don’t think you can ignore that, and it wasn’t nice to watch.
“I spoke with Chris on the phone and I spoke with him in person as well. As you can imagine, he wants everyone to do well because it’s his football club. And it’s one he still feels a lot of pride and responsibility for.”