Sheffield United: Everything the Championship leaders will be doing during the international break

Early on Saturday evening, as Sheffield United’s players filed back into the away dressing room at Deepdale after beating Preston North End, Paul Heckingbottom ushered them into their seats and delivered a short speech once the hubbub had died down.
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The first half focused on a result which had seen the visitors strengthen their grip on the Championship table. The second was aimed at those about to report for international duty; the overwhelming majority of those who formed the United manager’s audience.

“I’ve addressed the lads, yes,” Heckingbottom said, before demonstrating that one of football’s most enduring traditions remains intact. “I did it in there afterwards but you won’t find out what I was talking about.”

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Heckingbottom cast journalists a mischievous grin as he was peppered with questions pitchside; such as ‘Did they say that in there, then?’ during the remainder of his interview. “You can write whatever you want,” he laughed, when asked if that meant The Star had been granted artistic licence. “Without any comeback? Well, there might be, I suppose. That depends on what you write.”

The actual agenda

Fortunately, Heckingbottom did choose to elaborate on some of the themes he raised immediately after the final whistle. Albeit broadly. Only going into detail when asked what those remaining in South Yorkshire will be doing while their colleagues, such as John Egan, Iliman Ndiaye and Anel Ahmedhodzic, disperse across Europe and Africa.

“We leave them to it when they go away,” Heckingbottom admitted. “We don’t tell them what to do or look to have any influence, because it’s only right that no one tries to interfere with what the national squads are doing.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom hopes Iliman Ndiaye returns from international duty with Senegal fit and in shape: Simon Bellis / SportimageSheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom hopes Iliman Ndiaye returns from international duty with Senegal fit and in shape: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom hopes Iliman Ndiaye returns from international duty with Senegal fit and in shape: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“But we do let them know that we are incredibly proud of them for going, and we know how much it means to them to be going as well. I’m not going to pretend that it's not a nervous time for us, though. Our focus is on the 29th (of September) when we’re due to get them all back.”

The manager’s itinery

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Although Heckingbottom and his staff plan to maintain a watching brief on what is happening elsewhere - “I always see the England games on television and of course, as everyone knows, we’ve got the under-21’s at Bramall Lane next week against Germany with Reda (Khadra) and three more of our boys (Rhian Brewster, Tommy Doyle and James McAtee) in it, so I’m looking forward to going there” - the majority of their time will be dedicated to working with those who have stayed behind.

Chris Basham (left) and Oli McBurnie (centre) are among the few first team players remaining at Sheffield United during the break: Simon Bellis / SportimageChris Basham (left) and Oli McBurnie (centre) are among the few first team players remaining at Sheffield United during the break: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Chris Basham (left) and Oli McBurnie (centre) are among the few first team players remaining at Sheffield United during the break: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

With George Baldock, Sander Berge, Rhys Norrington-Davies and Daniel Jebbison also among those hoping to win their latest caps, opportunities to work on tactics and strategy will be limited ahead of October 1st’s meeting with Birmingham City. So a series of individually tailored programmes, with special emphasis given to those either returning or who have just returned from injury.

Out since February, Jayden Bogle resumed training ahead of the 2-0 victory over Ryan Lowe’s side and a match - of sorts - will be arranged for both him and captain Billy Sharp at the Randox Health Academy.

“Our focus, generally, is going to be on the lads themselves, working with the ones who have stayed behind,” Heckingbottom explained. “We’ll be using the under-23’s quite a lot, drawing on them quite heavily during this period and Jayden will be doing a lot with those lads.

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“We’ll sort out a game for him. Okay it won’t be a proper game but a game of sorts. That will be particularly for him, but Billy will feel the need to get involved in that too.”

Paul Heckingbottom is working on programmes for individual players: Ashley Crowden / SportimagePaul Heckingbottom is working on programmes for individual players: Ashley Crowden / Sportimage
Paul Heckingbottom is working on programmes for individual players: Ashley Crowden / Sportimage

“He (Sharp) is fit again,” Heckingbottom continued. “He came on towards the end (at Preston) and it was great to have him back, that presence he brings at the top end of the pitch. But he’s behind in terms of where he’ll want to be. So doing something like that will help get him back up to full speed.

“Basically, we’re looking at the individuals and making sure they’re all where they need to be when everyone gets back. Obviously they’ll be getting some rest, because I think that’s important. The boys who are away won’t be getting that, clearly, but they’ll benefit in other ways with the new ideas and experiences they’ll be exposed to.”

The compromises made

Three points clear of second placed Norwich City, the pause in the domestic calendar also provides United with an opportunity to devote extra time and energy to helping Enda Stevens, Ciaran Clark, Ben Osborn, Jack Robinson and Adam Davies recover from the complaints which have forced them to miss some or all of the campaign so far.

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Youngsters Hassan Ayari, Sai Sachdev and Oliver Arblaster, who made his professional debut earlier this term, are also away on international duty.

liman Ndiaye is in fine form for Sheffield United: Simon Bellis / Sportimageliman Ndiaye is in fine form for Sheffield United: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
liman Ndiaye is in fine form for Sheffield United: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“Basically, because we’re slightly limited in what we can do given the numbers, it’s about one on one work for a large part of the next week,” Heckingbottom said. “They’ll get a few days off, which I think is important. Obviously the lads who are away won’t be getting any of that, but the nature of football now means it can be an all year round job.”

“There’s things we can do,” he added. “But the nature of those things changes. It becomes much more individual. But there’s still plenty to be getting on with.

“We’re delighted we’ve got so many going away, even though it can be a nervy time, because it shows the standards that are being set.”