Sheffield United: Boss prepares to take a huge promotion gamble
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The meeting with Marco Silva’s side, the final assignment on United’s regular season schedule, threatens to be a nervous occasion with four teams still battling for a place in the end-of-term knockouts.
Preparing for the contest in sixth, two points ahead of seventh placed Middlesbrough, Heckingbottom will instruct his squad to attack the visitors from west London rather than look to react to events elsewhere in the division.
“It’s always at the front of my mind, to ‘go’ for it and be positive,” he said. “My message for this one, even looking at the situation, won’t be any different whatsoever. I want us to be gung-ho and relentless. Why? Because I enjoy watching that. I enjoy high energy, high tempo football.
“I know our fans enjoy it too. And, importantly, I also think when we’re doing that, that’s when we are at our best. I think that’s when we’re at our most effective so that’s what we’ll be trying to do.”
United remained on course to guarantee themselves a shot at promotion when they beat Queens Park Rangers in west London Friday night. Millwall, in eighth, are three points behind Heckingbottom’s men. Luton Town, who are fifth, enter their penultimate contest of the campaign - against Fulham tomorrow - on the same number of points as United.
Despite conceding their captain and leading goalscorer Billy Sharp has no chance of facing Silva’s team after tearing a calf muscle during training, Heckingbottom continued: “You’ve got to give it to the lads. They’ve had so much thrown at them but they still keep fighting and going for it. That tells you something about the attitude they’ve got. It suits the way we want to go about things.”
Leaders Fulham are already assured of an immediate return to the Premier League. United, who were also relegated from the top-flight 12 months ago, will also be without Oli McBurnie, Jayden Bogle, Rhian Brewster and David McGoldrick as well as Sharp.
But after watching Iliman Ndiaye, Jack Robinson and Conor Hourihane hit the back of the net against Rangers, who had earlier taken the lead through Charlie Austin, Heckingbottom said: “You’ve got to give it to the boys, because they’ve shown they’ve still got goals in them. They’ve shown how they are ready to battle and fight.”
“That’s a really good quality to have,” he added. “And they’ve shown it ever since we came in.”
United, who were 16th when Heckingbottom was appointed in November, had hoped Sharp would spearhead their push for promotion after recovering from a hamstring issue. But the 36-year-old suffered a huge blow during the build-up to the victory over Rangers, limping out of a session at the Randox Health Academy before learning he could be out of action until the summer.
“I think people will understand why we didn’t say anything,” said Heckingbottom, who had insisted before setting-off for the capital that Sharp was in a position to start the contest. “He’ll be scrapping tooth and nail to try and come back (for the play-offs) if we get there."