The method behind Sheffield United's decision to confirm Paul Heckingbottom is a contender to become their next permanent manager
The more he spoke about the future and the deeper he became involved in helping them plan for it, the more obvious it became that Sheffield United viewed Paul Heckingbottom as a serious contender to become their next manager.
The official confirmation came late on Wednesday night, when chief executive Steve Bettis confirmed the 43-year-old’s name featured on a five man shortlist. Not that reports stating as much required any corroboration. It was already obvious, blindingly obvious in fact, that Heckingbottom was in the running to replace Chris Wilder.
With the search for his successor about to enter its seventh week, Bettis’ statement represented an attempt to not only persuade supporters that plenty is going on behind the scenes but also, should United decide to make him an offer he almost certainly couldn’t refuse, begin preparing the foundations for Heckingbottom’s potential coronation.
In many senses, the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief appears to be a sensible choice. But after surrendering their Premier League status earlier this month, United recognise that appointing from within would see them accused of taking the cheapest option. Particularly when Slavisa Jokanovic, the Championship promotion specialist, has done everything but publicly acknowledge he is interested in the role.
Heckingbottom isn’t guaranteed to get the nod with Jan van Winckel, United’s owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s close friend and footballing advisor, known to be an admirer of Oostende’s head coach Alexander Blessin. But with the German unlikely to qualify for a work permit under post-Brexit legislation, Bramall Lane’s hierarchy can be forgiven for introducing United’s fan base to the idea that Heckingbottom might be asked to stay in post on a permanent basis after taking caretaker charge midway through last month.
It is a tactic previous regimes have employed in the past, whenever they realised a decision might prove controversial. When The Star revealed Danny Wilson, previously of Sheffield Wednesday, was in the running to replace Micky Adams, the board of directors at the time was privately delighted the news had leaked out. Although there were protests outside the ground during Wilson’s official unveiling - he later won his critics round - the majority of United’s following had already got used to the idea of having someone with strong links to Hillsborough at the helm.
Having tried to distance himself from the position, there is surely method behind Bettis’ decision to announce that, yes, Heckingbottom is in the running.
If, and it remains ‘if’ United do plump for Heckingbottom, he would be a popular choice in the dressing room. His presence could also enhance United’s chances of making a strong start to next season, with interim assistant Jason Tindall, a childhood friend of Bettis, likely to remain on staff too. Unlike Blessin, Jokanovic or Michael Appleton, another name which has been mentioned in dispatches behind the scenes, the pair are already armed with an in-depth understanding of what makes the squad tick. Also it’s strengths and weaknesses.
But the argument that United need someone fresh, a manager capable of seizing the whole operation by the scruff of the neck and rejuvenating what is bound to be a pretty dispirited group, is also compelling. Through his sheer force of personality alone, Jokanovic would be able to do this.
Convincing their followers the right man is at the helm is important. But United must persuade the audience inside the dressing room too.
It was noticeable, when he was asked by this newspaper to outline his philosophy last weekend, that Heckingbottom’s response correlated closely with the framework Prince Abdullah and van Winckel are intent on establishing following Wilder’s exit. Whereas he made no secret of the fact he liked to smear his “fingerprints” over every area of the football club, Heckingbottom appeared to advocate taking a more consensual approach - explaining how Norwich City, whose model he believes United would be wise to adopt, have recovered from being relegated themselves last term by adhering to a strategy devised by their owner, manager Daniel Farke and his sporting director.
Initially hired as United’s under-23’s coach, Heckingbottom has worked closely with many of those youngsters United want to promote through the ranks. Crucially, he is also happy to embrace the 3-5-2 system Wilder employed to such good effect before politics brought his reign to a premature end. Blessin’s representatives have been told, albeit through an intermediary, that United would prefer to retain it in order to avoid the need for an expensive and potentially disruptive makeover of a squad without any out and out wingers or fantastitas.
Despite his chequered records at both Elland Road and Easter Road, Heckingbottom is well-thought of in coaching circles. Many of his peers argue that win percentages of 25 and 34 respectively confirm he simply chose the rights clubs at the wrong time. With Wilder’s successor yet to be unveiled, Heckingbottom has clearly impressed van Winckel enough to be drafted onto the planning and recruitment committees designed to decide who stays, who goes and who is targeted when the transfer window reopens. It would be strange if, having been handed this responsibility, his credentials were not being scrutinised by the selection panel.
Of course, if Heckingbottom fails to build on last weekend’s victory over Brighton and Hove Albion - his first in sole charge of a senior team since mastermind Hibernian’s 4-1 win at St Johnstone in November 2019 - he will be a tougher sell, despite plenty of mitigating factors. Helping United deliver another, this time at Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, would see his odds shorten still further.