The big advantage Sheffield United must try and exploit against Tottenham Hotspur
Ultimately it will all boil down to the skill of the players.
But for once, Paul Heckingbottom and Jason Tindall have the advantage of experience.
On Sunday, when Sheffield United travel to north London for their meeting with Tottenham Hotspur, the visitors’ bench will hope to put the knowledge they have gleaned over the past six-and-a-bit weeks to good effect against a managerial rookie.
Ryan Mason, who took charge of Spurs following Jose Mourinho’s departure earlier this month, is preparing to oversee only his second match at the helm of the beaten EFL Cup finalists after being handed the reins on an interim basis.
Heckingbottom and Tindall, the United manager’s assistant, are veterans by comparison. Even though, having answered the board’s call when they parted company with Chris \Wilder, they are set to make their seventh appearance in the technical area.
“When I first did as a caretaker,” Heckingbottom said, reflecting on his first posting at Barnsley, “I’d never really been on the touchline before at that level before.
“If you are clear on how you want to play, and how you want to go about others things, then those aspects of the job are pretty straightforward. The difference, that comes during games, is the frenetic nature of them, the fact it’s a first team game, the fact the television cameras are there and, when they were allowed in too, the crowd. All of that impacts upon your decision making.”
Despite tasting life at the highest level north of the border during a short but eventful spell with Hibernian, Heckingbottom had yet to coach a side in the English top-flight until United’s defeat by Leicester City midway through last month. Tindall, previously Eddie Howe’s number two at AFC Bournemouth before briefly assuming sole control himself, is also relatively green compared to his counterparts elsewhere in the division. But with Wilder’s exit sending shockwaves throughout the entire football club, the pair have already been confronted by every issue in the managerial handbook.
Plus, United will hope as they get ready to lock horns with one of the deadliest attacks in Europe, are better equipped to make split second decisions that their rival across the technical area.
“You have enough time to prepare in the week and there are never any surprises in terms of knowing what the opposition are about,” Heckingbottom said. “Everyone knows everything about everybody else, because the analysis, particularly now, is so detailed.
“But what you also have to remember now is that we are dealing with top level players in this division, No matter how well you prepare, at the very highest level, individual players are out there who can take the game away from you.”
It speaks volumes about the precarious nature of their profession that both Heckingbottom and Mason are caretakers. Although United are considering appointing Heckingbottom on a permanent basis as they look to bounce back from relegation at the first attempt, Spurs have spent the past 48 hours casting flirtatious glances in the direction of City’s Brendan Rodgers and Ajax’s Erik ten Hag. An accomplished midfielder until a fractured skull forced him into early retirement, Mason knows it would be a mistake to move his belongings into Mourinho’s old office at Spurs Lodge in Essex.
“That’s football, you always know you are going to be judged on results,” Heckingbottom said, revealing he has met Mason on several occasions over the past couple of years. “Some clubs take a longer term approach, others are more haphazard in terms of how they hire and fire.
“The one thing I always say, though, is if every single team improved season on season and every single manager improved season on season, there are still going to be winners and losers.
“Some managers have a little bit of control. Others are lucky enough to have 90 percent of control over everything.
“Some people get sacked but people never put things into context, or look at the circumstances they are working in. They don’t look at what was going on at the time or the things they were having to deal with. It’s never an easy job.”
Despite that Heckingbottom, who insists his approach won’t change despite featuring on what has been described as a “five man shortlist”, remains convinced it is one worth doing. Indeed, after again detailing what United need to excel in the Championship next term, Heckingbottom would clearly relish the opportunity of putting his ideas into effect.
Following his baptism of fire at Wembley, Mason might be green by comparison. But it will not have escaped United’s notice that he can call upon the likes of Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min, whereas Heckingbottom’s options are still being limited by injuries.
“I’ve got a bit of common ground with Ryan,” he said. “We’ve met at a few coaches meetings and we took an under-23’s team down there a while back so we had a chat then.
“I don’t know what the conversations down there are, but I can understand how Ryan is feeling about it. Does he want to be a manager or not? I don’t know. What I will say is that even if you’ve never got ambitions to be a manager, it’s still a great experience. Some people love it. Others try it and never want to do it again.
“But, if anyone asks me, I’d definitely say it’s something you should try. Because either way, you learn so much.”