But when Paul Heckingbottom insisted it is imperative Sheffield United continue to position him at the “front and centre” of their recruitment programme, the more you suspect he can predict where things are heading. Particularly, fingers, toes and everything else crossed, if he leads them back into the Premier League. The 44-year-old has enough people wanting a piece of his time at Championship level. The number would increase a thousand fold if he leads United up next term.
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The demands the modern game places on Heckingbottom and his counterparts across the rest of the division have risen exponentially in recent years. Which is why, after the biggest names in the business began appointing directors of football - or sporting directors as they are now known - teams further down the pyramid have started to follow this fashion.
After considering the idea themselves several years ago, United remain wedded to the traditionally English way of doing things - with Heckingbottom and his predecessors dictating pretty much every single aspect of their sporting operations. But was what appeared to be a throwaway comment during a recent round of interviews with regional journalists an indication that, at some point in the future, the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief expects things to change? And if they do, would that be such a bad thing? Particularly, through no fault of those working away at the coalface, his employers appear to be making painfully slow progress through this summer’s transfer market.
When he was appointed in November, following an abortive experiment with Slavisa Jokanovic, members of Bramall Lane’s hierarchy were quick to stress that Heckingbottom was not only being handed responsibility for first team affairs but also shaping policy within other departments too. Eight months and one play-off semi-final later, nothing seems to have changed. Speaking at an event designed to launch its new agreement with Errea, Abdullah Alghamdi, chief executive of United World which overseas HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s global portfolio of interests, stressed Heckingbottom was an important member of the organisation’s leadership committee too.
“Hecky, Stuart (McCall) and Jack (Lester),” Alghamdi told The Star, “They’re all really important figures. They set the tone at United and we want them to continue with their good work.”
Still, with UW keen to encourage greater collaboration between its members if Henry Mauriss’ proposed takeover of United fails, it could prove impossible for Heckingbottom and his assistants to remain properly focused on events in South Yorkshire and prevent goings-on elsewhere in the group from becoming a distraction. They haven’t so far. But they might. Particularly if drives to implement UW-wide information gathering systems and talent tracing software coincide with pivotal moments of the campaign.
Although his predecessor Chris Wilder will disagree - claiming that Jan van Winckel was effectively operating as a DoF towards the end of his reign - United’s last flirtation with installing one occurred when Kevin McCabe was the biggest cheese in the boardroom. The late Graham Taylor was approached and provisionally accepted the position before withdrawing for personal reasons.
With van Winckel now seemingly focused on their Belgian sister club Beerschot rather than United, Heckingbottom is unlikely to suffer the frustration of seeing one player purchased without his knowledge for what was a not insignificant fee. Indeed, sources at United revealed earlier this week that he has been at the forefront of efforts to try and get at least one of the potential deals they are chasing across the line - personally telephoning the individual’s agent and dipping his toes into talks with other targets too. Tom Little, United’s new head of performance, is believed to have been hired at his behest.
Nearly two months after their agonising defeat on penalties in the end of term knockouts at Nottingham Forest, United have yet to welcome any new faces into their fold. Targets have been identified. But, as yet, no contracts have been agreed.
Senior figures at the club are right to try and achieve the best value possible. But every week that passes without reinforcements arriving potentially costs United points. Heckingbottom, whose squad travels to Portugal for warm weather training next week, is overseeing his first pre-season in charge and will want to make tactical adjustments he felt unable to after being eased into the hot seat midway through last term. If competition has already restarted when fresh faces arrive, it lowers United’s chances of hitting the ground running. Stasis left United feeling stale under Jokanovic. They can not afford to repeat that mistake again, with the Serb forced to wait until just before the deadline until Morgan Gibbs-White pitched up. Had the midfielder been hired earlier, it is doubtful Jokanovic’s side would have found itself effectively out of the top two picture by the end of August.
At present, United’s CEO Steve Bettis is the main bridge between the coaching staff and the board. He is also thought to be performing a similar role with Mauriss, having been entrusted by Prince Abdullah to report back on the American’s efforts to seize control. Carl Shieber has responsibility for piecing together the deals Heckingbottom decides to action, after receiving proposals from head of recruitment Paul Mitchell and his colleague Jared Dublin. All five are more than competent operators, despite some of them often copping unfair amounts of flak for the speed - or lack of it - with which United go about their business.
But would a sporting director help make them more efficient and effective? Is one even required?
He didn’t raise the subject explicitly. Or even obliquely. But Heckingbottom’s comment suggests one could eventually be in the offing. Either that, or even more faith will be placed in his judgement over the course of time.