Sheffield United's Paul Heckingbottom is in combative mood ahead of the derby with Leeds United
Sheffield United’s players have been told why it would be a mistake to accept they have already been relegated from the Premier League, despite preparing for this weekend’s game against Leeds 14 points from safety with only nine matches remaining.
Although he admitted United find themselves in a grave situation at the bottom of the table, and that the chances of them surviving are almost non-existent, Paul Heckingbottom insisted it would represent a dereliction of duty to “throw in the towel”.
Heckingbottom, who was placed in caretaker charge of United following Chris Wilder’s departure three weeks ago, also stressed that allowing standards to slip between now and the end of the campaign could undermine the club’s efforts to bounce back at the first attempt if, as seems certain, it surrenders its top-flight status in May.
“We still fight,” he said. “We know the task, we’re not silly, we know the situation we are in. But we have to keep on fighting, no matter what. Because that’s what sets the tone.”
Although his temporary status means Heckingbottom’s ability to make drastic changes is limited, the 43-year-old wants Wilder's eventual successor to inherit a squad with a renewed sense of purpose and belief following a dispiriting seven months in South Yorkshire.
In order to help them recover from the psychological trauma recent results have caused - United make the short journey north having lost all but six of their 29 outings in the competition this term - Heckingbottom wants those under his command to compartmentalise fixtures rather than considering the bigger picture.
“Our focus has got to be on each game, each performance,” he said. “Our sole focus has got to be putting on a performance against Leeds and then, after that, pouting in another performance in our next one. It’s about doing things that can help us be successful now but also be successful next season too.”
“Nobody here is going to throw the towel in,” Heckingbottom added. “That’s definitely something I know isn’t going to happen. But it’s important just to take things one match at a time. That’s the way it has to be done.”