Sheffield United: The conversation Paul Heckingbottom wants to have at Bramall Lane

After listening to Sheffield United’s board cite their long-term “strategic vision” as the reason behind his appointment, Paul Heckingbottom has inevitably faced questions on those aspects which have been publicly discussed whenever he faces the media.

Monday, 6th December 2021, 4:00 pm

But as he is tasked with delivering the club’s plan to accelerate its youth development programme, or bring greater “synergy” within the United World network, the 44-year-old is desperate for his players not to lose sight of the fact that results this season must remain their priority.

It is a message he has chosen to repeat again ahead of next week’s home game against Queens Park Rangers; a match United enter on the back of three straight wins following victories over Reading, Bristol City and most recently Cardiff City.

“Long term, we want to invest and develop in the whole set-up, across a variety of different things,” Heckingbottom said. “But not at the expense of this season. Not at the expense of what is happening right now.”

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Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom wants to focus on this season's results: Ashley Crowden / Sportimage

After spending long periods of the campaign languishing in the lower reaches of the table - a situation both Heckingbottom and his predecessor Slavisa Jokanovic have attributed to the manner in which United were relegated from the Premier League last term - performances and results have started to pick up of late. Saturday’s victory in the Welsh capital also lifted them to 10th in the Championship, five points outside of the play-off positions with 25 rounds of the competition remaining.

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After helping United take maximum points from his first two games in permanent charge- they also collected four from a possible six during Jokanovic’s final week at the helm - Heckingbottom is everyone associated with the club remains focused on returning to the top-flight at the first time of asking.

As he deliberately reminded before the meeting with Steve Morison’s side: “The Premier League is where you make the most money.” And whether people like it or not, plenty of money is going to be required in order to implement many of the things which were spoken about, albeit in pretty opaque language, when his appointment was officially announced.

Sheffield United captain Billy Sharp celebrates his team's win over Cardiff City: Ashley Crowden / Sportimage

“There’s still plenty of football to be played, lots of games to go and doing as well as we possibly can in those has got to be the biggest thing on our minds right now,” Heckingbottom said, certainly the players’ minds.

“That’s why we are here. Okay, we’re not going to win them all. We know that. But we’re going to try and win as many of them as we possibly can. That goes without saying. That’s the mindset. That’s not going to change. It can’t.”

Despite hearing United’s hierarchy tell a bemused audience of journalists that results would not define Heckingbottom’s reign, the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief’s recent comments confirm he knows nothing is further from the truth. Jokanovic’s plea for “two wingers and a holding midfielder” before leaving South Yorkshire after six months at the helm is known to have frustrated at least one member of owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s inner circle.

Paul Heckingbottom manager of Sheffield United during the Sky Bet Championship match at the Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff. Picture credit should read: Ashley Crowden / Sportimage

Had United made a better start to life under the Serb, although his allies argue their lack of progress at the beginning of the summer transfer window proved to be a debilitating handicap, then his call for more new signings is likely to have been viewed as an irritation. Instead, despite a wealth of evidence that Jokanovic’s methods require time to take effect, it is understood to have been taken as an indication that he was not suited to the ‘United’ Prince Abdullah and his advisors want to create. Otherwise, if results really aren’t a barometer of a coach’s capabilities - although, confusingly, the statement announcing Jokanovic’s departure implied they had driven the decision to terminate his employment - then there would have been no sense in making a change. After all, it was widely accepted when his arrival was confirmed in May, that Jokanovic was the most qualified person for the job. Clearly not the most compatible though, once the blueprint which prompted United to invite Heckingbottom to step up from his role with the under-23’s - after acting as manager in a caretaker capacity last season - was apparently finalised a couple of months after he agreed a three year contract.

Heckingbottom argued on numerous occasions before relinquishing control that United needed to formulate a clear idea of what the future looked like by the time they returned to competitive action in August. He is now attempting to bring some much needed clarity to the situation by ensuring the conversation at Bramall Lane revolves around sporting outcomes rather than more ethereal concepts such as nurturing home grown talent - something which has been at the heart of United’s modus operandi ever since Neil Warnock, benefitting from the fine work of people like Ron Reid and Kevin Fogg, handed opportunities to the likes of Phil Jagielka, Nick Montgomery and Michael Tonge nearly two decades ago.

Harry Maguire, Kyle Walker, Kyle Naughton, Matthew Lowton, Stephen Quinn and Aaron Ramsdale are among those to graduate from United’s youth programme since then, with the latter being sold, re-signed and then sold again - this time to Arsenal for what was described at the time as a “head turning” sum.

“We want to bring people through and there’s a lot of really talented people still there,” Heckingbottom said ahead of the visit to Cardiff. “But I want to keep everyone’s eyes on the fact this season matters. What happens now matters, because we want to do as well as we possibly can.”