United enter Sunday’s final match of the campaign guaranteed to finish bottom of the table and searching for only their seventh victory in the competition since September following a miserable eight months which have also seen them part company with Chris Wilder.
Although caretaker manager Paul Heckingbottom acknowledges confidence has taken a battering with every defeat - United suffered their latest reverse at Newcastle earlier this week - he insisted the difference in quality between England’s first and second tier should mean United have no problems readjusting - mentally at least - to life back in the English Football League.
“They have it in them, these players, let’s have no doubts about that,” he said, as preparation for Burnley’s visit to South Yorkshire gathered pace. “These players have shown how good they are in the Championship, by getting themselves out of it two years ago and they can do it again.
“Listem, the gulf and the gap between the two divisions is huge. Absolutely huge. I mean that with total respect to everyone in the Championship, because that’s where we’re heading.
“But here, at this level, you are up against world class talent every single week. Look at the Champions League final - two English Premier League clubs. Look at the semi-finals of the Europa League, where we nearly had an all English final in that too.”
“Seriously, at times I don’t think people really realise the difference between the two,” Heckingbottom continued. “If you make a mistake at this level, it gets punished. Nine and a half times out of 10, it gets jumped on and that’s because, right the way through, you are coming up against some of the best (players) on the planet. There’s no break. It’s every single week.”
Despite finishing ninth last season, a combination of factors including injuries, the absence of fans and disruption to the schedule caused by the Covid-19 pandemic eventually exposed the lack of depth at United’s disposal. Heckingbottom is expected to relinquish his first team responsibilities and resume his work with the under-23’s following the visit of Sean Dyche’s side. But peering into the future, he outlined the steps United must take in order to establish a foothold in the PL should they return under Wilder’s successor.
“How do you get Premier League quality, real Premier League quality? Well, you buy it and at the minute we can’t afford to do that,” Heckingbottom said, acknowledging United must grow off the pitch as well as on it to realise their potential. “Right now, we can’t afford to do that and we have to accept it.
“The boys don’t just want one or two seasons in the Premier League. They want to come back and stay there. To do that, you have to constantly build because we don’t have a model like Chelsea or Manchester City where we can go out and buy the best there is.”