The non-footballing coach who would probably have been helping Sheffield United if Covid-19 hadn't happened

If Covid-19 hadn’t happened, and Sheffield United weren’t preparing for matches inside a socially sealed bubble, their players might have noticed an unusual figure making occasional visits to the Steelphalt Academy training complex over the past couple of weeks.
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The person in question wouldn’t have taken an active part in their sessions. He’d spent most of his time standing on the touchine; observing what was happening and listening to how Paul Heckingbottom and his staff were delivering instructions.

The person in question is Tony Smith - former coach of Huddersfield Giants, Leeds Rhinos, Warrington Wolves and now Hull Kingston Rovers.

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“I’ve got many mentors,” Heckingbottom said, detailing his relationship with one of the world’s most recognisable rugby league coaches. “Some of them are people and players within the game, but there’s plenty of them outside of it too.

Sheffield United's morale is at a low ebb: Andrew Yates / SportimageSheffield United's morale is at a low ebb: Andrew Yates / Sportimage
Sheffield United's morale is at a low ebb: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

“Tony Smith, I’ve always kept in touch with him. He’s a great person, he really knows his stuff and he’s got a hell of a lot of knowledge.”

When he accepted the position of caretaker manager midway through last month, Heckingbottom knew he was signing-up for the type of impossible mission even the IMF’s most dedicated agents would think twice about accepting. If taking responsibility for a side destined for relegation wasn’t bad enough, the fall-out from Chris Wilder’s departure following five hugely successful years at Bramall Lane wreaked havoc with its planning for a visit to Leicester City.

United were beaten 5-0. Heckingbottom described their chaotic performance as inevitable. Three more defeats later, they enter tomorrow’s game against Wolverhampton Wanderers 18 points adrift of safety with only seven matches remaining. Or, to put it another way, teetering right on the brink.

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Having managed Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian before returning to Yorkshire as United’s under-23 coach, Heckingbottom is neither green nor naive. But as he attempts to keep spirits high behind the scenes, and bring a sense of purpose to a season which is spiralling dangerously out of control, Heckingbottom accepts a fresh pair of eyes is always useful. Hence, he explained during Thursday’s weekly media briefing, why he values the advice of Smith despite not being a fan of the Australian’s favourite sporting discipline.

Paul Heckingbottom ispeaks to Sheffield United's players Simon Bellis/SportimagePaul Heckingbottom ispeaks to Sheffield United's players Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Paul Heckingbottom ispeaks to Sheffield United's players Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“Tony has done stuff with the LMA (League Managers Association) before in terms of mentoring and coaching,” he said. “If you are a coach, and I see myself as a coach, then you can help anyone. Then, that’s where the technical element of the profession comes in.

“Tony is brilliant on stuff like remembering what you stand for. Leadership, that’s something he’s brilliant on too.

“It’s good to have someone different to chat to because, if all you did was talk about the same things, you’d come up with the same answers all the time and that’s no good.”

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“I remember at Barnsley when Danny (former United manager Danny Wilson) always used to have the rugby league on if we were in on a Friday night,” Heckingbottom continues. “To be honest, I’m not really into it and I was always trying to get him to switch over and put the Championship game on.”

Oli McBurnie will miss the rest of what has been a punishing season: Simon Bellis/SportimageOli McBurnie will miss the rest of what has been a punishing season: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Oli McBurnie will miss the rest of what has been a punishing season: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

With their demotion about to be mathematically confirmed, United will be watching plenty of those next term when their two year stay in the Premier League comes to an end. With Oli McBurnie and captain Billy Sharp now both ruled out for the rest of the campaign and Chris Basham, Sander Berge, Jack O’Connell, Jack Robinson, Jack Rodwell and John Fleck also undergoing treatment, Heckingbottom has chosen to focus on improving United’s mindset rather than getting bogged down with anything too technical. The time for subtle adjustments, tiny tactical tweaks and honing the minutiae of their game plan has long since passed.

So who keeps Heckinbottom’s spirits up, as he tries to present the right image and strike a positive tone whenever he addresses those under his command?

It was a question posed to Wilder on several occasions following last season’s ninth placed finish and Heckingbottom’s answer was much the same as his predecessor in the job.

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“Family probably, that’s who keeps mine up,” he said. “To be truthful, because of the position I’m in, I don’t feel quite the same burden as if I was signing these lads and then going into a window knowing I was going to be giving people bad news or good news.

“That’s when you really need good people all around you. Because it is a pressure and a weight on your shoulders. Because this is such a unique position, because it’s 24/7 and so all encompassing, that’s when you go to your outside mentors like Tony in my case.”

United are combining their preparations for the visit to Molineux with the search for Wilder’s permanent replacement. Heckingbottom is known to have impressed senior figures among the club’s hierarchy with his conduct of late, but several outside candidates are also being considered. Despite concerns about his eligibility for a work permit, Oostende’s Alexander Blessin is known to be of interest, while Slavisa Jokanovic remains the most popular choice among fans. However the Serb, whose contract with Al-Gharafa expires this month, has yet to be approached.

“It was a strange situation to walk into but being caretaker is a totally different type of job,” Heckingbottom acknowledged. “I’m more babysitting if you like. Being a manager is tough, everyone will tell you that. But I don’t have the other pressures of managing at the moment and I have to approach it in a positive way.”

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