Sheffield United: The factors that led to Slavisa Jokanovic's departure as Paul Heckingbottom is unveiled

It was August, the sun was shining and the transfer deadline was approaching.

Thursday, 25th November 2021, 4:45 pm
Updated Thursday, 25th November 2021, 8:05 pm

But Slavisa Jokanovic, despite only being Sheffield United’s manager for less than two months, wasn’t in the best of moods.

He didn’t speak about ‘targets’ as the window prepared to close. Rather the word “promises” was continually shoehorned into his conversation with journalists as he held court pitchside following a goalless draw at Luton. It was the first sign his relationship with Bramall Lane’s hierarchy was already deteriorating - a process which ended with him being handed a P45 before training earlier today.

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CEO Stephen Bettis, Paul Heckingbottom, Chairman Yusuf Giansiracusa and Director Abdullah bin Yousef Alghamdi at a press conference to unveil Paul Heckingbottom as the new manager of Sheffield United at Bramall Lane, Sheffield: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Although Jokanovic’s departure took many by surprise, The Star can reveal the Serb’s reign was characterised by tension and disagreements behind the scenes. Nowhere near as aggressive as those which had seen his predecessor Chris Wilder leave the club in March, with the now Middlesbrough chief publicly voicing his displeasure at what he perceived as a lack of support from above. But they were still, although Jokanovic did his best to ensure things remained calm on the surface, enough to convince owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and other members of the board that a change was necessary; Paul Heckingbottom again being asked to take charge ahead of Sunday’s game against Bristol City.

UNOFFICIAL WARNING

Sources at United claim Jokanovic’s choice of words following that visit to Kenilworth Road resulted in him being unofficially warned about being seen to criticise his employers. It wasn’t the first time either that a ‘polite’ request had been made about what he was saying and to whom, with one senior figure within the game also suggesting members of the Serb’s inner circle had been accused of alerting this newspaper to the fact he had been invited to hold talks about the vacant role in May. For the record, they weren’t. The tip-off came from someone boasting numerous contacts but who has never held - and never will - a position at the football club.

Relegated from the Premier League last season and now languishing 16th in the Championship, albeit only eight points behind sixth placed Stoke, results will be portrayed as the main reason behind United’s decision to relieve Jokanovic of his duties. They undoubtedly played a part, particularly as his team’s position in the table weakened his leverage when it came to demanding action on things like recruitment. But they were not the primary catalyst for his exit, as chairman Yusef Giansiracusa admitted when he acknowledged Jokanovic did not fit United’s strategic vision - something which the chairman conceded was only drafted following his arrival and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Slavisa Jokanovic during his final match in charge of Sheffield United: David Klein / Sportimage

Jokanovic, a promotion winner with both Watford and Fulham before arriving at United, was the obvious and the best choice to take over at the helm when Wilder relinquished control. A serial title winner at Partizan Belgrade, his CV also details successful spells at Maccabi Tel Aviv, Muangthong FC and Al-Gharafa - the side he left before being seduced by United.

But it is also important to remember that Jokanovic was not the first person Prince Abdullah and his sporting advisor Jan van Winckel turned to when Wilder waved goodbye to the team he had supported since childhood and then steered from the third to the first tier. After flirting with the idea of bringing in Lincoln’s Michael Appleton, Alexander Blessin was then courted before they finally conceded he would not qualify for a work permit. Then, Heckingbottom was considered before eventually returning to his job with the under-23’s.

UNITED WERE TOO SLOW TO REACT IN TRANSFER MARKET

Unveiled following a lunch in Geneva, where Prince Abdullah is known to spend long periods of his year, Jokanovic initially insisted wholesale changes were not required to restore United’s fortunes. But privately, he stressed that while it was a good idea to maintain the core of the squad which had achieved so much under Wilder, only a major reprofiling exercise would provoke the type of swift turnaround necessary to challenge for a top two finish.

When Jokanovic spoke to the media following United’s trip to Bedfordshire only one player - Liverpool’s Ben Davies - had arrived on loan. More would follow, including Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Morgan Gibbs-White and Conor Hourihane of Aston Villa, but not before his team had already fallen well off the pace.

United have invested. But not when – and how – Jokanovic wanted.

Jokanovic was popular among both the players and those members of the coaching staff who had also served under Wilder. Indeed, many are said to be upset by the dramatic turn of events.

CRACKS IN THE SQUAD

But Heckingbottom and his new assistant, former United midfielder Stuart McCall, will inherit a dressing room said to be less than cohesive. One victim of his side’s failure to establish themselves in the upper echelons of the division is said to be United’s once famous team spirit. Cracks in the group are thought to have emerged in recent weeks, with some younger players reportedly preferring to fraternise with their old under-23 colleagues than the senior group. The atmosphere isn’t toxic. But it’s not great either, according to one squad member who confirmed conditions at the training complex also remain a source of frustration. Likewise, United could change kit supplier when their agreement with Adidas expires.

After experimenting with a new formation, Jokanovic returned to the 3-5-2 utilized by Wilder following the recent international break. But this was a move born more out of a belief he had not been handed the names required to implement his methods than faith in its ability to bring about change. Two wingers and a holding midfielder, after agreements for Sampdoria’s Ronaldo Vieira and Alex Collado of Barcelona collapsed over the summer, featured on the wanted list he was set to present to United shortly. Unless they or others arrived, Jokanovic clearly felt that any other system was doomed to fail. The same, given Giansiracusa’s comments during Heckingbottom’s official coronation, goes for United’s thoughts about the success of his project.