Sheffield United: Boss vows to fight in the culture war he believes is threatening English football
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At the beginning of May, when the final whistle is blown inside a sunbaked St Andrews, where Sheffield United have just beaten Birmingham City to win the Championship, Paul Heckingbottom strides onto the pitch and addresses the away supporters who are still delirious with delight after serenading their heroes.
“This is for each and every one of you,” he shouts, his voice crackling with emotion after being handed a microphone by a helpful member of the opposition’s staff. “I’m so proud of this group and all our fans too. Now let’s crack open some champagne and celebrate the fact we can do it all over again next season. It means so much to think that we’ll be coming back here again, maybe only in a couple of months, and testing ourselves against the same teams that we’ve just faced.”
If all of the above sounds utterly ridiculous, that’s because it is. United, first in the table after taking 24 points from their opening 12 contests, enter tomorrow’s match against Stoke City dreaming of promotion. They want to pit their wits against the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City. Not, with all due respect to some of their forthcoming opponents, Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Coventry or Blackburn Rovers.
Yet, if some shadowy figures and owners get their way, perpetually competing to be known as the best side in England’s second tier is the fate which would befall United and others currently viewed as being outside of the elite. Calls for a European super league are once again beginning to echo along the corridors of power while it probably won’t be long, given recent developments in rugby, until someone proposes the Premier League becomes a closed shop too.
“It can’t happen,” Heckingbottom responded, when asked by The Star about the threat commercial interests pose to the fabric of the national game. “You’ve got to be able to win, you’ve got to be able to lose and yes, you’ve got to be able to draw if no one comes out on top. If you can’t do all of those things, if you can’t succeed and effectively get nothing for trying to improve yourself, then what are we doing all of this for?
“I genuinely don’t think people get how big stuff like this is. They’ve got to consider what the game looks like if stuff like this starts to get changed. I’ve seen what it looks like, where seasons can effectively be over after three or four weeks. I don’t understand, if there’s some sort of NFL franchise system, how you could enjoy coming to work knowing that really everyone is just going through the motions because there’s nothing really at stake for most of the people involved.”
English football shouldn’t be surprised, given half of PL members could soon boast either US owners or investors, that those putting their money in are minded to shape it along North American lines. Todd Boehly, who recently took control of Chelsea, has proposed introducing an All-Star game similar to those staged by the NFL and its counterparts governing baseball, basketball and ice hockey.
It didn’t go unnoticed that Boehly’s compatriots at Anfield, the Fenway Sports Group, were among the most committed champions of the ESL project before they were forced into an embarrassing u-turn when fans voiced their anger at the idea. With the value of the pound against the dollar likely to encourage even more business people and entrepreneurs from the USA to try and acquire interests in the UK, Boehly’s idea is likely to be the thin end of the wedge.
With campaigning group Fair Game describing reports that Prime Minister Liz Truss could abandon plans to establish an independent regulatory body for English football as a betrayal of “towns and communities up and down the country,” former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville has also confirmed he backs the notion of creating an umbrella organisation with the clout to protect the game’s values and traditions.
“Gary is on the right line with this,” Heckingbottom continued. “There needs to be legislation, something, to stop some of these things from happening. We do everything we can do here, to try and improve ourselves and get better at what we do. But we all know how these things can work and you’ve got to remember that change - and not always change for the good or for the right reasons - can happen. If there’s no reason for us to try and excel and get better at everything we do, if there’s no real reward for that, then what are we here for?”
United received a painful reminder about how power and vested interests work midway through their last stay in the PL two years ago. Heckingbottom’s predecessor Chris Wilder was publicly admonished by some of the biggest names in the managerial business for opposing moves to permanently adopt the ‘five substitute’ rule - something he believed favoured those with bigger pockets and therefore squad. After a polite pause, the package was put forward for consideration again and voted through.
Although Heckingbottom himself has welcomed the change, the 44-year-old said: “Obviously we want to get there and be in it again, but we all know how the Premier League works. If 75 percent or whatever want something, then it will come in. We’ve got to be wary about what things eventually look like, even if they’re not dressed up like that at the start. You have to be mindful of the end result.
“There’s always changes, I get that. Things evolve. But concepts like promotion, relegation, success and yes failure, they have to be protected at all costs.”