Sheffield United: 'Surprise' decision isn't a risk as play-off race reaches its climax

Some folk might have expected them to be summoned into training after Paul Heckingbottom and his coaching staff promised to leave no stone unturned in their pursuit of an immediate return to the Premier League.

Tuesday, 3rd May 2022, 3:40 pm

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But the Sheffield United manager, whose side are fifth in the table ahead of Saturday’s final round of Championship games, ordered his team to spend time doing “anything other than football” over the Bank Holiday period. The ploy, which he unveiled following their dramatic win over Queens Park Rangers, is designed to ensure the messages now being relayed at the Randox Health Academy are properly digested before Fulham’s visit to South Yorkshire.

“Physically, it’s been tough,” Heckingbottom told The Star. “Mentally, psychologically, it’s also been hard on the lads as well because they invest so much emotionally into what they do.

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“So we’re trying to make sure their minds are as fresh as they can be, as well as their bodies. It’s an aspect, especially when the focus was on how busy our schedule was not so long back, that often gets overlooked. In situations like this, though, the mind is just as important as the body.”

Rather than being a high-risk gamble, Heckingbottom regards the decision to shoehorn some ‘R&R’ into United’s latest pre-match programme as eminently sensible. Indeed, ever since being appointed in November when United were 16th in the table, the 44-year-old has frequently awarded his squad unexpected breaks. However, the tactic does not extend to those members currently recovering from injuries. After being diagnosed with a muscle tear ahead of the trip to west London, where second-half goals from Iliman Ndiaye, Jack Robinson and Conor Hourihane cancelled-out Charlie Austin’s opener for Rangers, captain Billy Sharp is following an intensive treatment programme designed to give him a slim chance of being available for selection should United qualify for the postseason play-offs and then reach the final.

Having seen his side move to fifth following Luton Town’s 7-0 thrashing by United’s upcoming opponents, Heckingbottom continued: “Everyone can see what the lads are putting in. They have been all the way through, as people recognise - otherwise they wouldn’t be where they are now and in this position.

Paul Heckingbottom, the Sheffield United manager: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

“But often, if you want to prepare the best way you possibly can, it’s vital that they are alert mentally and that’s why we do what we do. There’s still a lot of work going in.”

After studying footage of Marco Silva’s men in action - already promoted, their result against Town secured the title too - United plan to spend the final 48 hours of their preparations working “on the grass” according to Heckingbottom.

Nullifying the threat posed by Aleksandar Mitrovic, who scored his 43rd goal of the season yesterday, and set-pieces will be particular focus areas. United triumphed 1-0 when they travelled to Craven Cottage five months ago, with Ndiaye producing a superb piece of individual skill to settle the contest.

“Total is important,” said Heckingbottom, who was placed in caretaker charge as United slid out of the top-flight last term. “Total concentration, at all times, is important. To be able to do that, you need to be mentally refreshed and alert.”

Conor Hourihane celebrates his goal during Sheffield United's win at QPR: David Klein / Sportimage