Sheffield United: The clever trick which explains why the boss was smiling ahead of play-off decider against Fulham

He was smiling, not scowling. Despite, as one journalist in the room reminded him on countless occasions, preparing for 90 minutes of football which will decide if Sheffield United can continue to dream of promotion or are forced to confront the prospect of another season in the Championship.

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But as Paul Heckingbottom detailed his squad’s preparations, revealing that coaching staff had made no attempt to disguise the significance of tomorrow’s meeting with Fulham, it quickly became apparent why the 44-year-old was feeling so relaxed.

“If you want to get to the top, well, then you have to take part in huge games don’t you,” Heckingbottom told The Star. “So we’ve done, because that’s where we want to go and these are the occasions we want to be involved in, we’ve practised it all the way through. Every single time we’ve been getting ready for a fixture, we’ve built it right up. That way, when you are coming into something like this, your job gets done for you.

Paul Heckingbottom was in relaxed mood as he prepared Sheffield United to face Fulham: Cameron Smith/Getty Images

“We know what’s at stake. We know this is going to be huge and we haven’t tried to pretend anything else, to either ourselves or the lads. But do you know what? We’re actually pleased to be coming into it. Why? Because it means there’s something at stake and we’ve got a chance to be successful.”

The race for the play-offs

Fifth in the table, two points ahead of seventh placed Middlesbrough and three above Millwall in eighth, United know a win will be enough to secure play-off qualification regardless of results elsewhere. The only trouble is, their opponents have proven themselves to be the best team in the division - wrapping up the title following a 7-0 demolition of Luton Town on Monday night. Still, as Heckingbottom reflected during this week’s media briefing at the Randox Health Academy, the higher the stakes the better United often perform.

Sheffield United are fifth in the table after beating QPR last week: David Klein / Sportimage

“We know what we’re up against, the best team in the league, but we also showed we’re a good team down at their ground,” he said, casting his mind back to December’s victory over Marco Silva’s side at Craven Cottage. “And our mentality, our mindset, is that we want to be at our best against the best.

“Fulham have been beaten, as we know. We also know how good they are, because of how hard we had to work. So we respect them, as always. But I also think they’re going to be coming here with that same respect for us.”

Tiny things make a big difference

Aleksandar Mitrovic will be key to Sheffield United's chances: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Big games are often settled by the smallest of details. Some so tiny, Heckingbottom confessed as he described Iliman Ndiaye’s wonder goal in west London, they are almost imperceptible to the human eye.

“Iliman, it’s never really been spoken about before, but one of the reasons he was able to do what he did - run so far with the ball and then finish really well - was a little drop of the shoulder he did just before one of their boys was looking to make a challenge. It was only about two inches. Maybe not even that. But it stopped their defender, Tim Ream, from encroaching and he was able to get the shot off. That’s the ability he’s got. The things, off the cuff, he can do.”

Tactics and imagination

With Billy Sharp out injured - sources close to the United captain last night disputing his manager’s claim that a course of sugar injections had been prescribed to try and accelerate the striker’s recovery from a muscle problem - Ndiaye is again expected to partner Morgan Gibbs-White in attack. Together with his assistants Stuart McCall and Jack Lester, Heckingbottom has spent the past week choreographing the defensive moves United will employ to try and prevent Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic scoring his 47th goal of a ridiculously prolific season. “It’s not just about stopping him or the supply line to him. It’s both.” But going forward, Heckingbottom is determined not to suffocate United’s ingenuity with rigid tactics. Gibbs-White and Ndiaye, who netted for the third time in four outings during last month’s victory over Queens Park Rangers, will be encouraged to use their imagination.

Sheffield United know another win will book their place in the Championship play-offs: David Klein / Sportimage

“You can’t coach the things that Iliman did down there, or the things Morgan does so often, into a plan,” Heckingbottom said. “When he decided to pick up the ball and go with it, for me that’s not about tactics. When Morgan unlocks things, that’s because he’s seeing things. That’s what good players, who can handle the ball, do.”

Manage the occasion and the game

With United knowing the promotion picture could change countless times during the course of the afternoon - Middlesbrough travel to Preston, Millwall visit AFC Bournemouth and Luton, in sixth, host Reading - much has been made of the experienced options now at Heckingbottom’s disposal.

George Baldock, one of 11 United players with either a promotion or senior international cap on their sporting CV’s, is expected to declare himself fit after resuming training with his colleagues.

But youngsters such as Gibbs-White, Ndiaye and the teenage Will Osula, who could feature on the bench, have important roles too.

“That naivety if you like, although they’re not naive players by any means, it can bring a freshness and an energy,” Heckingbottom continued. “That can persuade you to take the risks that mean you end up scoring a great goal. So long as you have people who are fearless, which we do, then I think you won’t go far wrong.”

United were sixteenth when Heckingbottom took charge in November. Now, 27 outings later, they are on the brink of earning a shot at Premier League football.

“We’re not trying to keep it on a level,” he said. “It’s a huge game, we know that. We have chased and kept the season going.

“Personally, I’m excited. If we get in then I’ll be proud for about five minutes, Then I’d be thinking about the play-offs.”