Sheffield United mix-up Wigan Athletic numbers but message still stands true

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He might not have got the numbers exactly right. But Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom has never been a big one for stats.

Still, as his team prepares to face Wigan Athletic in a match of huge significance for both ends of the Championship, the 45-year-old won’t be swayed from his belief that Shaun Maloney’s side will pose a much tougher test than the table suggests. Listening to Heckingbottom outline the threat tomorrow’s visitors pose, you could be forgiven for thinking it really does lie at this stage of the season.

“They don’t look like a group that’s bottom of the league to me,” he told The Star last night. “That’s why the only thing we’ve been talking about this week is Wigan Athletic. After Shaun has come in, there’s hardly been any goals between the teams and they’ve only lost twice. To Burnley and Preston North End.”

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Wigan have actually been beaten three times since Maloney’s appointment, having also succumbed to West Bromwich Albion. But the tenet of Heckingbottom’s argument is correct. Other than a 3-0 defeat at Turf Moor, where United travel on Monday, all of their other reverses were by a single goal.

“They are fighting, they are scrapping and they are very brave on the ball, looking to get on it and pass it,” Heckingbottom continued. “So we are going to need Bramall Lane to be rocking. Because, make no mistake, this is going to be a very difficult game.”

While Wigan continue to prop up the rest of the division, thanks to a points deduction imposed following the late payment of salaries, United have prepared for the contest ranked second with eight matches of their campaign remaining. Last weekend’s victory over Norwich City saw them extend their advantage over third placed Middlesbrough, who were beaten by Huddersfield Town. With Neil Warnock’s men desperately scrapping for survival, Heckingbottom’s reminder that “strange things can happen at this stage” of a campaign should resonate even more.

The manager of Wigan Athletic, Shaun Maloney: Tom Dulat/Getty ImagesThe manager of Wigan Athletic, Shaun Maloney: Tom Dulat/Getty Images
The manager of Wigan Athletic, Shaun Maloney: Tom Dulat/Getty Images

“Looking at Wigan since Shaun has gone in, one of those losses (to Burnley) came after they had a player (Omar Rekik) sent-off. Right now, I’m looking at them thinking they are a team playing above the bottom of the league. I see an energy, a spirit and a desire to get on the ball and pass it - a bravery. “We have to match and better their work rate. We are playing against a team that's fighting, with edge and energy.”

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Like Heckingbottom, Maloney also boasts a spell at Hibernian on his managerial CV.

“I’ve not spoken with him about it,” Heckingbottom continued. “I don’t know how it panned-out for him there because our paths haven’t crossed. But it will be good to catch up and find out when we have a beer afterwards. Hopefully it tastes better for me than him, though.”

Although long-term absentees Enda Stevens and Rhian Brewster, together with Ben Osborn and Daniel Jebbison, will miss the clash with Wigan, Heckingbottom stressed United collected no fresh knocks “other than the usual bumps and bruises” during the trip to Carrow Road. Maloney will be without Danel Sinani, on loan from Norwich, due to a hamstring issue.