After taking a moment to scroll through the programme, which begins with a trip to Watford before games against Millwall, Middlesbrough and then newly promoted Sunderland, he gave a short speech to mark the occasion. Its core message, Heckingbottom later reflected during a briefing shoehorned in between the two sessions staff had arranged at United’s training complex in Shirecliffe, revolved around the folly of trying to predict how a season might unfold. Particularly while squads are still taking shape and other key decisions being taken. This, Heckingbottom reminded his audience as they tucked into their tea, toast and croissants, is a time to focus on his own team rather than worry about what might be happening elsewhere in the division. Because what appears an awkward challenge now, once injuries and suspensions bite, might not be quite as testing in the future.
“You never ever know what it’s going to be like,” Heckingbottom said, before acknowledging that Vicarage Road “under lights” isn’t the most comfortable of curtain raisers given the resources at Rob Edwards’ disposal. “Results can always seem a little bit freaky at the start, particularly while things are still settling down. When things bed in, then you might get a picture. But there’s business being done and nothing is finalised, anywhere, yet. So, as far as I’m concerned, yes it’s nice to know when we’ll be going to certain places. But really, all I’m bothered about at the moment is making sure we are getting things right.”
Heckingbottom was typically phlegmatic when he addressed the media yesterday, facing regional journalists for the first time since last month’s defeat to Nottingham Forest in the play-off semi-finals.
Never someone to make a fuss or get wrapped-up in the moment, he deflected questions about the schedule with the most predictable of responses: ‘It really doesn’t matter, you have to face everyone twice,’ or words to that effect.
The fixture effect
Plenty has happened since that loss at the City Ground, including the the launch of a new kit deal with Errea. But precious little has occurred in the transfer market, with no fresh faces greeting Heckingbottom and his coaching staff when work resumed at the Randox Health Academy earlier this week. Suddenly, with United now knowing the route they must take in order to regain top-flight status, their return to action doesn’t feel quite so far away. Although he resisted the temptation to say so publicly, Heckingbottom will privately hope that focuses a few minds in a boardroom where directors are still awaiting news of Henry Mauriss’ proposed takeover.
“Signings, it’s difficult,” Heckingbottom conceded, confirming offers have been made to a couple of targets while contract talks with Adam Davies are on-going. “We’ve got two active at the minute. We had a good conversation yesterday, can we push on others? We made proposals a long time ago.
“Our market, after the offer, will largely be frees and loans. We need half a dozen. We’re going to have a smaller squad, working to a smaller budget. Fact. We are looking at quality rather than numbers and want to give opportunities to youngsters.”
“The sooner you get them in,” he reminded, “The bigger the advantage.”
United got most of what they wanted from the EFL, including an away match during the opening round of games which begin less than a week after Bramall Lane is scheduled to host the last of its four ties at the UEFA Women’s European Championship. In a perfect world, United would be completing their schedule at home rather than Birmingham City. St Andrews, as Heckingbottom will doubtless remind us in 11 month’s time, is never an easy place to go.
Their supporters, however, will be less than impressed by the programme Heckingbottom’s charges have been handed. It includes Tuesday night journeys to Swansea and Bristol while their visit to Cardiff City clashes with Wales’ rugby union tie against Argentina at the Principality Stadium. Hotel prices nearby that weekend are likely to soar. A New Year’s Day date with Queens Park Rangers, at Loftus Road, is hardly ideal either.
Other notable assignments include derbies against Rotherham in September and February, the last of which takes place at New York Stadium, and Middlesbrough’s outing at Bramall Lane soon after. The Teessiders, who are also expected to challenge for a top six finish, are of course managed by his predecessor Chris Wilder.
In the meantime, with many of United’s international performers still away on holiday, Heckingbottom’s mind is fixed on ensuring those who did enjoy something resembling a half decent break are fit and firing on all cylinders by the time his charges head to Portugal for a friendly against Casa Pia on July 8. Distractions, unwelcome ones at least, include speculation surrounding the futures of Sander Berge and Max Lowe. After joining Forest on loan last term, and helping them reach the Premier League, Lowe was the subject of a permanent bid by Steve Cooper during the January window.
With the defender’s representatives angling for their client to be handed a new deal, to compensate him for the loss of a potential top-flight wage, Heckingbottom is relaxed about the situation. So to, if he is to be believed, is Lowe after the pair remained in “constant dialogue” all the way through his spell in the east Midlands.
“There’s always interest in others,” Heckingbottom said, suggesting Lowe isn’t the only member of United’s side to attract admiring glances from elsewhere. “My answer is always the same, no one is going.”
“Max is in next week,” he added. “They’re probably interested in others as well. We want people in before we let them out. There’s no need on the contract, no rush. Max has got a few years left with us.”