What Sheffield United stand for and the personality traits their new manager must possess
Every weekday morning, after stepping inside the Covid-19 cordon wrapped around the Steelphalt Academy, Paul Heckingbottom is reminded of the qualities and the values which helped Sheffield United reach the Premier League.
His former colleague Chris Wilder wasn’t a fan of posters emblazoned with motivational messages. But the 53-year-old, who twice led the club to promotion before waving goodbye last month, was prepared to make exceptions. Which explains why, having decamped to the first team building after being placed in interim charge, Heckingbottom had no need to take a crash course in what makes its inhabitants tick.
“Sheffield United will stand for different things to different people but there’s definitely some non-negotiables,” Heckingbottom replied, when asked what United means to him. “There’s certain things plastered all over the wall here, in terms of our values. They are always try to out-run the opposition, never be out-fought and always give everything. I really like that.”
Despite finding points difficult to come by this season - United are already relegated - the players who responded to that heartbreak by beating Brighton and Hove Albion last weekend have seldom been found wanting in terms of application and commitment. Speaking after the victory over Graham Potter’s side, and as his attention turned towards Sunday’s visit to Tottenham Hotspur, Heckingbottom noted only Yorkshire rivals Leeds have covered more miles or made more tackles since the campaign began.
Where United have been found wanting, however, is their genuine top-flight quality. It will be the responsibility of whoever replaces Wilder on a permanent basis to ensure they are not only capable of bouncing back at the earliest possible opportunity but are also better equipped, despite the absence of a billionaire owner in the Bramall Lane boardroom, to establish themselves at the highest level when they eventually return.
After flirting with Oostende head coach Alexander Blessin and performing due diligence on Slavisa Jokanovic, United are seemingly still no closer to deciding the identity of Wilder’s successor. But Heckingbottom, who is known to have impressed their hierarchy with his body of work so far, is convinced the successful candidate should bend to United’s philosophy rather than the other way around.
“What I like about the values here is that they’re simple and they represent the supporters,” Heckingbottom said, sounding uncannily like Wilder who espoused the importance of building a relationship with the fans. “Sheffield United isn’t about a formation. It isn’t about one or two individual players. Sheffield United is a mentality, and I think that’s brilliant.”
“It’s important that’s carried forward in terms of recruitment,” he continued. “Not only regarding players but also the next manager. Then, whoever he brings in has got to be of the same mindset too.
“Everybody here, and I mean absolutely everybody, has got to buy into that. And so they should because those are good values to have and important values to have, that can take you a long way.”
Given the concerns about Blessin’s eligibility for a work permit and fact contact has yet to be made with Jokanovic’s representatives, Heckingbottom seemingly has an opportunity to stake his own claim for the position over the next five games. Appointing him could be a difficult sell, prompting accusations that United have taken the cheap internal option. But the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief, who arrived in South Yorkshire to oversee United’s under-23’s, has been a steadying, calming influence since stepping into the breach. Critics will point to his chequered records at both Elland and Easter Road. But those pressing for Heckingbottom to be considered will argue that external factors, including some well-documented off the pitch issues beyond his control, were ultimately responsible for those.
Heckingbottom touched on his time in the West Riding and Edinburgh before the meeting with Albion.
“Leeds, I couldn’t say no but it was a very different place then to what it is now,” he conceded. “Most of it I’ll keep to myself, because they were private conservations and so that’s only right. But what I will say is that there were just too many players, so most of them knew that come what may they wouldn’t be involved and that’s never a healthy situation to be in.”
“Hibs, it was the right club at the right time and I loved my time there,” he added. “But then soon after going in there was a change of ownership and the people I’d come in to work for left. It was fair enough that the new people wanted to do things their own way. But it did make it difficult.”
Assisted by former AFC Bournemouth manager Jason Tindall, Heckingbottom has been asked to help United’s directors devise the framework within which the next manager will work. Although that could potentially prove unattractive for external applicants, it is a necessary evil given that United can not afford to be left behind in the transfer market. The location of United’s pre-season training camp has also yet to be publicly revealed, although Wilder is known to have favoured being based in France rather than Portugal or Spain before his reign came to an end.
“The people who come in have got to embrace what United stand for,” Heckingbottom said. “Because, as recent history has shown, that’s when we’re most successful.
"That togetherness can be a really powerful thing in football, when everybody is pulling in the same direction. It’s what we all want again.”