The debt of gratitude Sheffield United and their new manager Slavisa Jokanovic owe this man
Sheffield United are milking every last drop of publicity out of Slavisa Jokanovic’s appointment.
And quite rightly so. The Serb, who has accepted the challenge of leading them back out of the Championship, is what you might call a first class manager. A “proper” one as his predecessor Chris Wilder would say.
But amid all of the excitement surrounding Jokanovic’s arrival at Bramall Lane, it is worth taking a moment to recognise the work others have performed in recent weeks which will ensure the former Yugoslavia, Partizan Belgrade and Chelsea midfielder inherits a pretty decent hand when he officially takes up his position at the end of next month. Paul Heckingbottom who has spent the past two months in caretaker charge, being chief among them.
To his credit, United director Yusef Giansiracusa did exactly that when United released a statement, confirming what most people already knew, on Thursday lunchtime.
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Acknowledging Heckingbottom had inherited a pretty poor hand when he agreed to temporarily step up from his position with the under-23’s squad, the acting chairman said: “I should also like to take this opportunity on behalf of everyone at the club to express gratitude to Paul Heckingbottom for the f9ine job he has done during a difficult period.
“Paul temporarily accepted the extra responsibility without reservation, despite the obvious challenges, and through his hard work and superb professionalism, steadied the club and allowed us to move forward with confidence.”
Jokanovic was the stand-out candidate for a job which, until his lunch with owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Geneva on Thursday, had lain vacant since Wilder’s departure in March. He not only boasts the knowledge, the experience and the expertise to mastermind a promotion winning campaign - having previously done so at both Watford and Fulham - he has a presence too. And that is exactly what Wilder’s replacement needed in order to reinvigorate a squad still licking its wounds after being relegated from the Premier League.
There was a time, soon after United’s brief but very public flirtation with KV Ooostende’s Alexander Blessin, when Heckingbottom was also in contention for the role.
Chief executive Steve Bettis’ decision to confirm his name featured on what would later become a six man shortlist was no accident, representing an attempt to gauge opinion among the United support. But United needed someone fresh. Someone with no connection whatsoever to a campaign which saw them win only seven of their 38 outings. And who better than Jokanovic, who has spent the past two years working halfway around the world with Qatari club Al-Gharafa?
“I one hundred per cent understand this is a unique chance for me, I will push hard and the people around me to help my club,” Jokanovic said, during an interview with United’s official website. “Bramall Lane is a fantastic place to play football. I am sure with the supporters in the stands it will be a different team and will be the strongest and the bravest. “
The fact that three of United’s victories since September’s return to action came under Heckingbottom should, when he eventually decides to step back into the senior game, serve him well. Indeed, after a difficult start, the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief returns to work at the Steelphalt Academy with his reputation enhanced. Assisted by Jason Tindall, who must also share some of the credit for United’s performances in recent weeks, Heckingbottom’s brief and troubled stints in West Yorkshire and Edinburgh were clearly no reflection of his ability. Rather his unfortunate habit of, after leaving Oakwell, choosing the right club at the wrong time.
Yes, Heckingbottom made mistakes. But, articulate and bright during press conferences, he recognised as much. And then rectified them. It underlines why Wilder was keen to bring him to United in the first place.
“Sometimes, people look at a record but they don’t put it into context,” Heckingbottom said earlier this month. “They don’t look at what’s going on behind the scenes or what the actual objectives are.”
Thanks to Heckingbottom, Jokanovic will have some difficult decisions to make when he officially starts work on July 1. He can look forward to hitting the ground running too, after Heckingbottom helped shape United’s pre-season campaign and compile a dossier on the reasons behind their recent difficulties.
But perhaps his greatest gift to Jokanovic is a crop of exciting home grown talent. Some, like Daniel Jebbison and Iliman Ndiaye, are likely to have roles to play next term. Others, including Femi Seraki, Zak Brunt and Antwoine Hackford, are expected to be farmed-out on loan. But Jokanovic, who also has previous for promoting from within, will enjoy assessing them.
“What I remember about this group is that they are brave and they remember how to defend the goals of the club,” Jokanovic said. “When you are relegated it is not a good year, but it is the same team with Chris that finished ninth in the league. We need to be optimists.”
When he sits down and takes stock of his time at the helm, Heckingbottom will probably have some regrets. To begin with, although his reluctance to immediately make sweeping changes was understandable, Heckingbottom was too wedded to the system and strategies employed by Wilder. He was also too loyal to some of those in the starting eleven he inherited.
Indeed, it was only when he began to introduce his own ideas and systems, not to mention some of the younger players he worked with before stepping into the breach, that United’s results picked up.
On reflection, Heckingbottom will probably wish he had done things his way sooner. But he can still be proud of his work whilst in charge, particularly given the circumstances which prompted his appointment.