Sheffield United: It's time to stop talking about character and start celebrating wins again

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“Character,” the humourist Evan Esar once said, “Is what you have left when you’ve lost everything else you can lose.”
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Sheffield United: Steps taken after a pattern in opposition tactics is identifie...

Fourth in the table ahead of tomorrow’s game against Norwich City, Sheffield United still have promotion within their grasp. But the tenor of the conversation surrounding the season has changed in recent weeks. Beaten three times in five outings since the international break, manager Paul Heckingbottom and his team are now being asked about things like temperament and disposition. Less than one month ago, they were constantly being probed on how to remain grounded whilst leading the Championship.

“Bash gave the goal away and will be devastated about it,” Heckingbottom said, reflecting on the foul by Chris Basham which handed Coventry City their match-winning penalty on Wednesday night. “But he defended great, the same as John Egan and Anel (Ahmedhodzic). You need big personalities. You want big personalities and people who can deal with situations.”

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The line of questioning following United’s visit to the CBS Arena reflects the change in both their results and performances of late. Defeats to Mark Robins’ side, Queens Park Rangers and Stoke City, coupled with draws against Blackpool and Birmingham have not only impacted upon the squad’s position in the table - the finished the latest round of fixtures in fourth - but also the mood on the pitch and the terraces; the latter being something Heckingbottom has previously identified as being critical to United’s hopes of making a return to the Premier League. The sooner the 44-year-old is once again being quizzed on tactics, strategies and the threat of complacency rather than the need to be strong in the face of adversity the happier he and yes, United’s supporters, will be.

“We have to move on now, onto the next one,” he said. “We never, honestly, never take a different approach. After a match, if we’ve not won, of course then people are disappointed. Personally, though, my mind has to turn straight onto what we’ve got coming up. That’s where the focus has to be.”

Anel Ahmedhodzic of Sheffield United looks down in the dumps following Wednesday's defeat by Coventry City: Darren Staples / SportimageAnel Ahmedhodzic of Sheffield United looks down in the dumps following Wednesday's defeat by Coventry City: Darren Staples / Sportimage
Anel Ahmedhodzic of Sheffield United looks down in the dumps following Wednesday's defeat by Coventry City: Darren Staples / Sportimage

Although it won’t decide either of their campaigns, Norwich’s trip to United is of critical importance for both clubs. Before the recent pause in the domestic schedule, it was being flagged as a showdown between the best two outfits in the division. Now, with the visitors also suffering a dramatic downturn in form of late, it promises to colour their respective build-ups to the next big shutdown - for the World Cup in Qatar, which begins on November 20. With WalesRhys Norrington-Davies now in danger of missing the tournament because of a hamstring complaint, sustained during the game against Coventry, United could have only two representatives in the Middle East - the defender’s compatriot Adam Davies and Senegal’s Iliman Ndiaye - meaning they would definitely return to action on December 10, when Huddersfield Town are set to make the short journey to South Yorkshire.

Speaking ahead of the meeting with Dean Smith’s side, Heckingbottom suggested, without explicitly saying so, that he hasn’t been meticulously tracking either United’s league position or the opposition’s slide down the rankings following a run of three straight defeats. Norwich were second at the beginning of the month. Now they are sixth; three points behind new leaders Queens Park Rangers who overtook Blackburn Rovers following their thrashing of Cardiff City in midweek. Whether you believe him or not, Heckingbottom’s claim provides an insight into how he attempts to keep his emotions on an even keel in such an unpredictable environment.

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“Someone told me Blackburn were top beforehand, before we faced Coventry, and I didn’t believe them. I’m not looking. People think I’m kidding, even at the start of the season when we were top.

Paul Heckingbottom is preparing Sheffield United to face Norwich City: Darren Staples / SportimagePaul Heckingbottom is preparing Sheffield United to face Norwich City: Darren Staples / Sportimage
Paul Heckingbottom is preparing Sheffield United to face Norwich City: Darren Staples / Sportimage

“But I wasn’t. The message to players is that every game is an opportunity. We focus on performances and those have been good. But every game is a chance and when you have taken two points out of five, of course people look. But we are doing many things the same.”

One thing in a constant state of flux, however, is United’s selection policy. The sight of Norrington-Davies leaving the pitch on a stretcher earlier this week, before the contest was even a quarter-of-an-hour old, was the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of set-backs which have seen United’s preparation for matches come under scrutiny. Although Heckingbottom rejects claims something is going systemically wrong at the Randox Health Academy, where Sander Berge, Max Lowe, Jayden Bogle, Ciaran Clark and Enda Stevens are among those squeezed into the treatment room, he does admit the situation is affecting the dynamic of United’s play. Maybe even their confidence too, with his men appearing content to indulge in a game of chess with Coventry, who started the match at the foot of the table, rather than grab it by the throat.

Sheffield United's Rhys Norrington Davies faces a spell on the sidelines: Darren Staples / SportimageSheffield United's Rhys Norrington Davies faces a spell on the sidelines: Darren Staples / Sportimage
Sheffield United's Rhys Norrington Davies faces a spell on the sidelines: Darren Staples / Sportimage

Suspensions, or rather a suspension, cause disruption too. Goalkeeper Wes Foderingham will sit out the meeting with Norwich as he serves the second instalment of a three game ban following his sending-off for violent conduct following the final whistle against Blackpool last weekend. Shayne Lavery, the Blackpool forward, was also dismissed for his part in the melee which provided a fitting denouement to a chaotic affair containing four red cards in total and six goals.

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Davies, Foderingham’s replacement, acquitted himself well on his debut at Coventry but the Wales international brings different things to the table.

“It’s different strengths,” said Heckingbottom. “First thing is Davo has got to build a relationship, because he’s not played with that back three competitively. I thought his communication was good. It’s baby steps.

“Davo’s start position, and how high up he is, was good. Because of training, there’s a familiarity there with that back three. But it does take work. His touches with the ball at his feet and he swept up well, both in the first and the second half.”