Most people there would rather have been somewhere else. After all, if things had gone according to plan during their play-off semi-final against Nottingham Forest, they’d have been out on its pitches preparing for a trip to Wembley. Not, after suffering a heartbreaking defeat on penalties, making plans to ensure they are nowhere near a television screen when Steve Cooper’s side meet Huddersfield Town in the Championship showpiece.
Once the agenda became clear, however, the mood changed a little. Manager Paul Heckingbottom didn’t plan to waste time by reviewing events at the City Ground. Instead, with some of those present knowing they won’t be returning next term, he simply wanted to thank everyone for all of their hard work.
“I wanted to see them,” Heckingbottom told The Star. “Because you feel like you’re everything to them. There’s times when you want to tell them off, pick them up, praise them and encourage them or simply say ‘thanks.’ Honestly, I know we’ve all got our own families or people we care about. But, genuinely, you feel like a dad to them.”
The other reason
As well as providing an insight into the environment he has created since taking charge midway through last term, Heckingbottom hopes the get-together will help draw a line under a season which ultimately ended in disappointment and help ensure there is no hangover next term.
David McGoldrick, whose contract is not being extended after four years of distinguished service, enjoyed an opportunity to reminisce about 2019’s promotion to the top-flight under Heckingbottom’s predecessor Chris Wilder. Morgan Gibbs-White, about to return to Wolverhampton Wanderers following a hugely successful loan, spent time with colleagues who have become his friends.
Wounds were licked. Stories were shared. And then Heckingbottom, when the moment was right, said a few words.
“One of the reasons I wanted to see them is to make sure they’re all alright. Not only the players but also the staff as well, because they put so much into their work. It often doesn’t get publicly highlighted or get the credit it should. But they do.
“I wanted them to know that it's important to relax and enjoy themselves during the break we’ve got now, albeit one that’s going to be a bit longer than we wanted. The lads went out on their shield but I know, because of what they’re like and how much they want it, that won’t make them feel any better.”
Heckingbottom has already created his timetable for the summer. And it revolves largely around work. Talks are planned with goalkeeper Adam Davies, to decide whether he wants to remain in South Yorkshire. And then, once the Wales international’s situation has been resolved and Filip Uremovic’s plans for the future are known, the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief will begin punching numbers into his mobile telephone; re-establishing contact with the targets whose names he had scribbled onto the whiteboard in his office at Shirecliffe under the banner ‘If we remain in the second tier’.
“It’s an on-going thing,” Heckingbottom explained towards the end of last month. “And obviously who you are looking at has to be pretty fluid depending upon the two outcomes that are possible. First, providing we’ve got the okay, you’ll find out if someone is interested in coming here and what they might want, what their ambitions and motivations are. Then, the rest goes from there. We’ve got people in mind, as you’d expect. But then new things can pop up.”
Although he refused to rule-out a return, it seems certain that a replacement for Gibbs-White will feature at the top of Heckingbottom’s list of wants. Together with someone capable of replicating Sander Berge’s midfield role too, should the Norwegian be lured away before competition resumes. Neither will be easy tasks.
The type of targets
Having won 53 percent of his matches since taking charge in November, leading them from 16th to fifth in the table, it is unlikely that Heckingbottom will want to make sweeping changes to United's modus operandi. A new centre-half, depending upon what happens with Uremovic, is another priority. Likewise, having witnessed how it helped get Forest out of the cart earlier this week, after Gibbs-White and John Fleck had levelled the tie’s aggregate score following Brennan Johnson’s opener, injecting extra power and pace into United’s frontline. Keinan Davis’ introduction prevented Cooper’s men from folding before the shoot-out every bit as much as Brice Samba’s heroics between the posts.
“I’ll spend some time on my own, with the family of course,” Heckingbottom said. “But basically, it’s straight back to work. The planning (for next season) starts now.”
The other pressing business
That also involves ensuring Rhian Brewster, Jayden Bogle and Oli McBurnie are all ready to begin the new campaign after suffering serious injuries. A decision, for the sake of his own mental well-being as much as anything else, must surely soon be reached on Jack O’Connell, who has not featured for the past 20 months because of a knee issue.
McBurnie can be an important performer for United, providing he is allowed to operate as himself rather than forced to impersonate a targetman. Brewster, their record signing, was beginning to hit his straps before succumbing to a hamstring complaint. Losing Bogle also proved a bigger loss than anyone realised at the time, while United must work out what to do with Max Lowe, his former team mate at Derby County, who has excelled for Forest.
“Our thoughts have already turned to getting ready,” Heckingbottom said. “That’s what we’re working towards from this moment on.”