But Sheffield United’s interim manager Paul Heckingbottom has explained why, as preparations continue for Sunday’s visit to Everton, his assessment of last weekend’s performance against Crystal Palace was actually pretty measured given the paucity of quality on display.
With the half hearted challenges they attempted to make before both of the visitors’ goals provoking questions about how invested they are in salvaging something from a season which is guaranteed to end in relegation, United travel to Goodison Park under increasing scrutiny. Supporters, who will return to Bramall Lane for the first time in over a year later this month when social distancing restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic are relaxed, are demanding more character. The next person at the helm, which may or may not be Slavisa Jokanovic after United’s board of directors reached out to the Serb and his representatives, will be studying displays closely before deciding which areas of the squad require strengthening.
But Heckingbottom, whose name remains on what is now a six man shortlist of candidates vying to replace Chris Wilder, is adamant that folk questioning United’s application are confusing commitment and confidence.
“One thing I’m not going to throw at this group, or accept anyone else throwing it at them either, is that they lack effort or desire,” he said. “Because that’s simply not the case.
“It’s one if the reasons I really enjoy working with them, because of their honesty. They’ve always had that, no doubt about it. That’s not even up for debate for me.”
“We’ve got to look, and we are looking, for ways we can improve right the way across the board,” continued Heckingbottom, who will return to his role with United under-23’s if he is not appointed on a permanent basis.
Although context is important - after winning only five times in the competition this term, they are bound to be psychologically beaten - United’s players can also do more to help themselves. The attempted tackles, if they could be described as tackles, which allowed Eberechi Eze to create one goal and score another damaged United’s reputation for being a squad of streetfighters. Any repeats on Merseyside will erode that still further. United’s fan base understands and has sympathy for the issues the side has faced this term. It is not the fact United are losing on a regular basis which concerns them, so much as how they are losing.
“We’ve got an obligation to go out and try to attack these games,” Heckingbottom said. “But it’s obvious where the issues are, and one of them has been goalscoring. When we are on top, or getting some momentum, we’re not making that pay as much as we should and it’s costing us. It always will at this level.”
“Nothing is ever easy,” he added. “But if you can score in those moments, then it makes life a little bit easier, definitely.”