Sheffield United: Yes, there were answers but many questions remain as thinking behind Slavisa Jokanovic sacking is explained

So Slavisa Jokanovic has been sacked.

Thursday, 25th November 2021, 9:50 pm

Relieved of his duties at Sheffield United not simply because of results, although they definitely brought forward an outcome which had begun to appear inevitable. But also, as chairman Yusuf Giansiracusa told journalists earlier today, because he was deemed a bad fit for the club’s long term “strategic vision” - a phrase deliberately shoehorned into nearly every sentence he uttered following criticism, not least in these pages, that the club didn’t appear to have one.

Not so, journalists called to witness Paul Heckingbottom’s official coronation were told time and time again. It was just that, when Jokanovic was appointed six months ago, they hadn’t actually formulated one Giansiracusa admitted. Presumably that was relayed to the Serb before he accepted the challenge of leading United back into the Premier League following last season’s relegation. Oh, and his assistant Chema Sanz too, who walked out of a pretty cushy job at La Liga giants Valencia to join the 53-year-old at Bramall Lane.

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Maybe I’m being stupid. Perhaps I’m not that intelligent. My footballing knowledge clearly isn’t that great. After all, as Giansiracusa told the assembled audience inside United’s media suite, he wants to bring expertise and “with all due respect to you and our fans” - referring, no doubt, to those who disagree with the decision - “That’s what Paul will bring.”


He will. Heckingbottom is a good guy and a talented manager, who understands the value of sticking to a masterplan. After all, having performed as well as circumstances would allow during a spell in interim charge last season, he spoke on a number of occasions about devising and then implementing one.

But, then again, Jokanovic had shown exactly the same qualities during promotion winning campaigns with both Fulham and Watford. Partizan Belgrade as well at the beginning of his managerial career, where he won back to back doubles before leaving for Thailand. So why the change?

Paul Heckingbottom unveiled as the new manager of Sheffield United at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. Simon Bellis/Sportimage

After spending over an hour listening to members of United’s hierarchy explain the reasoning behind their thinking, the fact I’m left with more questions than answers is either cause for concern, a reflection of my IQ or possibly a combination of both. I’m not saying those with overall responsibility for running the whole shebang are bad people, lack talent and ideas or don’t want the best for the football club. They are and they do. Which is why I’m left with the feeling that much of what was said during Heckingbottom’s unveiling was designed not only to get a few important messages across - finally - but also deflect any criticism.

If United didn’t have a clear concept of what the future looked like, why did they hand Jokanovic a long term contract? And why wasn’t Heckingbottom kept on over the summer while it was being formulated, given that he’d already shown himself to be a safe pair of hands?

“Any strategic plan is modified and adjusted as you go through,” Giansiracusa replied when I asked. “It would be foolish to establish a plan and then blind yourself to facts.”

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

Okay, fair enough. It’s difficult to argue against that. But it was still confusing that we were told United’s strategic vision would have been different had Jokanovic hit the ground running - not departed with his team languishing 16th in the table albeit after taking four points from two games.

So was the decision to sack him really part of some grand scheme, designed following his arrival, or simply a reaction to events?

We were told it’s the former. That Heckingbottom won’t simply be judged on what happens out on the pitch; starting with Sunday’s game against Bristol City. He has a much broader remit than constructing a winning side. The owner and his inner circle will assess his effectiveness using other parameters, including how much “synergy” he can bring to the United World project. (For those who don’t know, that’s the network of clubs including Beerschot and Chateauroux, HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has spent a great deal of time and money establishing since seizing control following a High Court battle two years ago).

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 Utd at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. Picture date: 25th November 2021. Picture credit should read: Simon Bellis/Sportimage


But encouraging greater interaction between those under the UW umbrella has always been on the agenda. It isn’t something suddenly conjured up over the course of the summer. After all, Jokanovic’s predecessor Chris Wilder voiced his displeasure about how certain aspects of this process were being handled before leaving his position in March.

UW is a laudable concept. It might one day bear fruit, although one suspects that will depend on how well United perform given that the English game is the richest in Europe. So surely, given the fact it’s central to the whole operation Prince Abdullah oversees, it was factored into the selection process which led to Jokanovic’s appointment?

Heckingbottom, if he is given the tools to perform to his maximum, is perfectly capable of doing a fine job. I hope he does, not only for United’s sake but also because he is a decent human being who is desperate to do well after being let down badly in some of his previous postings before being hired to coach their under-23’s. He gave plenty of them opportunities after becoming caretaker and will doubtless do the same moving forward. Kacper Lopata, Daniel Jebbison, Femi Seriki and Regan Slater could all become increasingly prominent during the second half of the campaign.

Jokanovic would have turned things around in time. But time is no longer a commodity afforded to people in his profession. I suspect United would have served themselves and Heckingbottom better by just admitting they decided to dispense the 53-year-old’s services because they weren’t happy with how things were going and weren’t really getting along. That, whatever your thoughts on this dramatic turn of events, would have been a much more compelling argument to grasp.

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