The end of the road? The big change Sheffield United simply must consider making this summer
By his own admission, this season has been such a punishing experience it has not only shredded Sheffield United’s reputation as one of the most exciting teams to watch in Premier League football but also their confidence and self belief.
There’s nothing to be gained in searching for positives. And, to his credit, Paul Heckingbottom hasn’t even tried with Sunday’s 4-0 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur the latest in a long line of humiliations a squad which only 12 months ago was challenging for Europe has been forced to suffer since eventually finishing ninth last term.
What Heckingbottom is attempting to do, however, is change the mood behind the scenes. Looking even lower on conviction than they are on points, it is the type of psychological challenge even Carl Jung would have baulked at.
But Heckingbottom, who appears in pole position to take charge on a permanent basis this summer, probably doesn’t have the luxury. If United are to regain their top-flight status at the earliest opportunity, then whoever takes charge must help the players remember what it feels like to do something they have done only five times since September: Beat a rival from the same division.
“It’s been tough, really tough, I think everyone understands that,” Heckingbottom conceded, after watching them barely make an impression on a one-sided contest. “But it is what it is and because nobody is going to help us, we’ve got to help ourselves.”
The most troubling aspect of last weekend’s rout in north London wasn’t the fact Spurs dominated the encounter almost from start to finish. Even more concerning was, as Gareth Bale ran riot before Son Heung-Min embellished his colleague’s hat-trick, was the fact they appeared resigned to their fate.
Coming two weeks after being relegated following a 1-0 loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers, United can be forgiven for lacking a sense of purpose. But when the South Korean completed the rout during the closing stages, goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale was the only member of the visitors’ squad to convey any hurt or anger. The rest, as television replays of Son’s perfectly placed strike confirmed, simply hung their heads and stared morosely at the turf.
“You can’t look to anyone else,” Heckingbottom said. “You’ve just got to stick your chest out, hold your head up and roll up your sleeves. But, yes, we are trying to change the atmosphere around the place because, as I’m sure you can imagine, it’s not as good as it could be right now.”
“That’s something that’s got to be addressed and we’re trying to do it now,” he continued, as he approaches the end of his spell in interim charge. “It needs doing and we’re working flat out to try and complete the process.”
So what is to be done? How does Heckingbottom Alexander Blessin or one of the other candidates supposedly on a five strong shortlist to replace Chris Wilder, snap United out of this trance?
Maybe out of a sense of loyalty, perhaps because he knows what they were capable of in their pomp or alternatively because his bosses want to avoid another expensive overhaul, Heckingbottom has spoken openly about the need to “keep the group together” during the forthcoming transfer window.
It is something Wilder wanted to do too before leaving his position in March, albeit after acknowledging the need for some handpicked additions.
But United look so low, so bruised and devoid of purpose, there is a compelling case for things to be freshened-up. Nothing lasts forever, and the most successful clubs in the business all recognise not only when to buy but also when to sell. Sir Alex Ferguson, who is known to have counselled Wilder through some of the darker periods in an otherwise successful career, was a master of that particular art.
Preparing for Saturday’s game against Crystal Palace at the bottom of the table having scored only 18 goals and conceded 60, PL managers are unlikely to be beating a path to United’s door when the market reopens shortly. Sander Berge is expected to go, with United aiming to make at least a £13m profit on someone they signed for £22m midway through last season. With fellow midfielder John Lundstram also set to become a free agent, agreeing a new contract with Iliman Ndiaye is of paramount importance although the youngster’s continued absence from United’s plans suggests progress is slow.
Oli McBurnie could attract interest despite struggling for form and fitness while George Baldock, one of the few United players to reach anything resembling consistency of late, could be vulnerable given his defensive capabilities mean he could play either as a wing-back or as a full-back in a flat back four.
Rhys Norringon-Davies, now a senior international for Wales, will report back for duty in South Yorkshire with plenty of second tier experience having been placed with Luton Town and most recently Stoke City - the latter presumably because they set-up in a similar way to United.
But with many of those at Heckingbottom’s disposal having already turned 30, they would surely benefit from an injection of fresh faces and ideas. Wilder employed the shock therapy trick to good effect after first taking charge in 2016; arranging a number of deals to generate funds for a spending spree which proved the catalyst for the first of his two promotions.
Something similar is probably required again. If only to return to life back in the Championship with people not bearing the mental scars of an utterly wretched season.