The most pressing items on Sheffield United's in-tray after waving goodbye to the Premier League
Barely 60 minutes after referee Kevin Friend had blown his whistle to call time on Sheffield United’s stay in the Premier League, and less than 30 since congratulating the players for their win over Burnley, Paul Heckingbottom’s mind was already drifting towards his holidays and spending time with the family.
You really couldn’t blame him. After all, despite acting as caretaker for only two months, the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian head coach inherited a pretty grim hand when he agreed to replace Chris Wilder at the helm midway through March.
Seemingly bereft of ideas, definitely lacking self-belief and shorn of the manager responsible for getting them there in the first place, United already knew they were destined to be relegated from the top-flight. Heckingbottom’s task was to identify and then organise the least painful way of saying farewell from a list of worst case scenarios.
Still, before the 43-year-old and his employers can begin packing their suitcases and trying to decipher the Government’s list of acceptable holiday destinations, there are a number of matters they must attend to.
Some are obvious, such as identifying and then unveiling Wilder’s permanent replacement. Others less so. But the decisions they reach will have a major bearing on whether United regain elite level status at the first attempt or consign themselves to a prolonged stay in the Championship.
A NEW MANAGER
It has now been nearly 11 weeks since Wilder’s memorable reign, which saw him lead his boyhood club from the third to the first tier of English football and then a ninth placed finish in the PL, came to an end. But United, much to the frustration of everyone involved in the search for his replacement, are still yet to announce who will be taking charge on a permanent basis.
Yes, it is vital they get the appointment right. Yes, jobs such as this should not be rushed. But as his relationship with the board deteriorated beyond repair, and their disagreements began to be played out in public, even folk with only a rudimentary knowledge of United’s internal politics knew it was a case of ‘when’ not ‘if’ Wilder would be leaving.
When they undertake their review on the selection process, Bramall Lane’s kingmakers will be kidding themselves if they don’t conclude they should have been better prepared when the inevitable happened.
The way United have lurched from one candidate to another betrays the absence of a coherent and effective plan. If one does exist, it isn’t being implemented. First they courted Oostende’s Alexander Blessin before encountering work permit issues.
Then they confirmed Heckingbottom featured on a five man short list, presumably to gauge public opinion, before stretching that to six when Slavisa Jokanovic, who previously wasn’t being considered, suddenly discovered he was.
With the transfer market set to reopen, United can not afford to wait much longer before making their choice.
Judging by the heartfelt tributes his team mates posted on social media following Sunday’s final match of the campaign, Phil Jagielka’s playing contract is unlikely to be renewed. John Lundstram is also poised to depart, after declining numerous invitations to sign a new deal.
But others need to know what the future holds for them in South Yorkshire. Kean Bryan, for example, is also approaching the end of his present agreement and FA regulations stipulate United have until this weekend to inform the centre-half if they plan to renew it. With Jack O’Connell still seemingly no nearer to making a return to action following knee surgery, United don’t want to put themselves in a situation where Wilder’s successor decides someone like Bryan would be invaluable only to discover he is close to moving elsewhere.
BE TRANSPARENT WITH THE FANS
Let’s face it, United have fallen well short this season. The table, which shows them finishing bottom and 16 points adrift of safety, confirms it has been a terrible campaign.
But their performance against Burnley, an irresistible combination of character and quality, showed just how much of a handicap playing behind closed doors has been for a team that always needed to overachieve in order to achieve survival.
Working in front of an audience for the first time since words like ‘Covid’ and ‘efficacy’ became part of our everyday vocabulary, since social media became awash with amaterur virologists, United suddenly looked like the team which had taken the PL by story last term. Not the one that had entered the meeting with Sean Dyche’s side having won only six of its previous 37 outings.
The relationship between players and fans was a crucial part of United’s success under Wilder. To avoid any misunderstandings breaking this bond, United must communicate with their followers and be as straight as practicably possible about whether they need to sell players to finance the recruitment of others and details about its business model. There is no shame in choosing any of those available. But problems arise when false impressions are mistakenly given.
One of the few positive things to emerge from a season which has ended in relegation, other than the return of supporters to their stadium, is the emergence of young players such as Daniel Jebbison, Iliman Ndiaye, Zak Brunt and Antwoine Hackford. Another, and Rhys Norrington Davies is arguably the pick of the bunch, is now back at Bramall Lane following spells on loan with Luton and Stoke. Although he does not fall into this category, United will be asking too much of these up and coming footballers if they expect them to provide the core of a squad capable of winning promotion from the Championship. But they must all be handed coherent development programmes and given every opportunity to flourish.