‘If you were one behind at the break of a Championship match at the City Ground,’ the Sheffield United manager asked them, or words to that effect, ‘Then would you think it was all over? No you wouldn’t.’
It was a message, after Sander Berge’s late strike denied Forest the luxury of a two goal advantage during tomorrow’s return in the east Midlands, designed to resonate not only with United’s team but also the opposition. Heckingbottom wants Steve Cooper’s side to know, despite the media narrative, this tie isn’t over yet.
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“When you’ve been in this position before, you know that two legs is the biggest thing to remember,” the United manager told The Star. “It’s not like a league game, you’re not doing interviews afterwards knowing that the result is final. Honestly, the situation we’re in is that we’re losing by the slenderest of margins at the break. Oh, and we’ve got 90 minutes to go instead of just 45.
“Don’t get me wrong, of course we’d rather be in front. Of course we’d rather be winning than losing, that goes without saying. But this isn’t done and dusted by a long chalk. No way whatsoever.”
To reinforce the point, Heckingbottom described the period in between last weekend’s contest, which saw Jack Colback and Brennan Johnson put Forest in the driving seat before Berge loosened their safety belt at the death, as “being like a three day half-time team talk.” With Forest’s celebrations after Johnson’s finish angering some members of United’s dressing room - “It was like they’d gone through,” one insisted during the immediate aftermath - coaching staff have focused on tactical rather than motivational work after the 44-year-old confessed their performance had been below-par.
“We can’t influence whether they, Forest, are at their best,” Heckingbottom said. “But we can influence our own plans, knowing what their strengths are and dealing with them better.”
“We know we are much better than we showed. Everyone knows that. We need to create more chances and, if we do that as we can, then the whole narrative changes.”
“We’ll be ready, make no mistake about it, to go out there and do everything to make sure it’s our night,” he continued. “We know, as we’ve shown it before, that when we perform as we can, that we’re a match for and can beat anyone in this division.”
United booked their place in the end of season knockouts by beating Fulham, who had just secured the title, 4-0 on the final day of the regular campaign. It was their second victory over the Londoners since competition resumed in August, and came on the back of wins against Cardiff City and Queens Park Rangers.
Heckingbottom, who took charge in November when United were ranked 16th, also reminded United the situation they find themselves in could work to their advantage.
“There’s another reason we can go into this full of confidence and that’s what have we got to lose? We know we have to win but that would have been how we’d have approached it anyway.”