The moment Sheffield United caretaker Paul Heckingbottom took the gloves off
Paul Heckingbottom, Sheffield United’s caretaker manager, has ordered his players to show more urgency when Crystal Palace visit Bramall Lane on Saturday after accusing them of lacking aggression during last weekend’s trip to Tottenham Hotspur.
Despite attempting to build bridges with a squad he could soon be in charge of on a permanent basis, Heckingbottom told The Star he refused to sugarcoat his assessment of United’s first-half performance in north London - which he accused of being passive and compliant.
The former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief is now demanding a response when Roy Hodgson’s side travel to South Yorkshire, saying: “It was anger, basically, from how we started the game. I didn’t enjoy, and I don’t enjoy, watching passive performances like that.
“It’s a mentality thing and it’s attitude.
“Listen, if you bring your best, your ‘A’ game and then you get beat by the better team, so be it. You hold your hands up and say ‘fair enough’. But when you don’t it’s disappointing, and I make no apology for saying that.”
Given that questioning the character of a group once famed for its fighting spirit was such a bold and potentially damaging step, Heckingbottom’s decision to do exactly that ahead of the clash with Palace illustrates the depth of his frustration with United’s most recent performance.
It will also be designed to provoke a reaction, as he attempts to organise an orderly exit from the Premier League and begin laying the groundwork for a promotion challenge next term. United’s relegation from the top-flight was mathematically confirmed three weeks ago.
Although he has acknowledged that will inevitably impact upon the mood behind the scenes, Heckingbottom is convinced the freedom which comes from knowing their fate is already sealed should convince United to attack matches more rather than putting bodies behind the ball.
Failing to do so at Spurs, where Gareth Bale scored a hatrick before Son Heung-min’s late strike condemned United to their second heaviest defeat of the campaign, suggests the mental scars caused by a series of losses and injuries will take longer to heal than first suspected.
“What’s that can happen? Well, it’s already happened,” Heckingbottom said. “So hopefully we can now feel as if we’ve got a little bit more room if you like to show what we can do and what everyone knows we’re capable of.”
Heckingbottom’s fury, which saw him introduce Sander Berge ahead of schedule at half-time and leave Chris Basham on the pitch for 90 minutes on his own return from injury, was heightened by the fact United had entered the match on the back of a battling home win over Brighton and Hove Albion - their first outing since being officially consigned to the Championship.
“We’d had a good week of training, really positive,” he said. “To begin with, what I saw wasn’t that at all and so we had to shake things up. We let everyone know that was the case during the interval because there was no point in pretending otherwise. We’ll always be honest with the players.”