Sheffield United's caretaker manager confronts critics - there are two big distractions at Bramall Lane
Paul Heckingbottom has urged Sheffield United’s players and coaching staff to focus on the remaining three games of the season rather than the club’s search for a new manager, after admitting that talk of how best to regain Premier League status at the first attempt is having a detrimental effect upon performance levels.
Placed in interim charge following Chris Wilder’s departure two months ago, Heckingbottom accepts it is “inevitable” that people working both on the pitch and behind the scenes at Bramall Lane are talking about who will take over on a permanent basis following next weekend’s final match of the campaign.
With United’s relegation being mathematically confirmed only five games into his reign, Heckingbottom’s attempt to oversee an orderly exit from the top-flight has also been complicated by the fact that many of those under his command have now turned their attention towards plotting a course out of the Championship.
Asked why the release of pressure which should have come after being demoted has not prompted an upturn in results - United enter Sunday’s game at Everton having lost seven of their eight outings since Wilder’s exit - Heckingbottom said: “There’s been nothing you can pin your mast on because it’s been such a strange situation for everyone, and I include the staff and the fans in that as well.
“Everyone is talking about next season, and I understand why. But I don’t agree with that personally, or like it, because there are games to win now. And if you are talking about next season now, then you won’t have the right focus.”
Rather than feeling the freedom to express themselves more, surrendering their place in the PL appears to have had the opposite effect on United’s team with their recent displays against Tottenham Hotspur and Crystal Palace being particularly subdued.
Dismissing claims they are symptomatic of a squad which lacks commitment, Heckingbottom countered: “I’m expecting us to go out there and give everything to get the three points.
“If you look at the physical data, there’s only Leeds that have outdone us in terms of high speed and high intensity runs.
“So for me, it’s subconscious. It’s that extra bit of aggression, it’s that extra bit you might put into a tackle, that extra bit of adrenaline. If this was a Wembley play-off final, everyone would be fit and available and there’d be a real buzz.”
United travel to Newcastle after returning from Goodison Park before waving goodbye to the highest level, at least for the time being, with a home fixture against Burnley.
Striker Oliver Burke is set to miss all three after being diagnosed with a fractured foot, while midfielder Sander Berge’s participation is also in doubt after he suffered an injury during the meeting with Palace.
Stressing Berge’s condition is not related to the serious hamstring issue he suffered in December, Heckingbottom said: “We’ve had a huge list of these, and serious ones as well. There’s always that debate about whether results cause injuries or whether injuries cause results.”