Why Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom is glad to be back at Bramall Lane - after 55 days away

BARRING any unforeseen events – and no-one will be taking anything for granted – Sheffield United will take the field for a home fixture at Bramall Lane for the first time in 55 days tomorrow.

Half-way through a season, that seems like an eternity.

In terms of their Championship schedule, United – whose last game at S2 was almost eight weeks ago – will be playing catch-up for a fair while.

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They certainly will be in front of home supporters with 13 fixtures still remaining and only 10 currently completed.

SHEFFIELD, ENGLAND - MAY 23: Paul Heckingbottom, Manager of Sheffield United acknowledges the fans following the Premier League match between Sheffield United and Burnley at Bramall Lane on May 23, 2021 in Sheffield, England. A limited number of fans will be allowed into Premier League stadiums as Coronavirus restrictions begin to ease in the UK. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)

It is not just catch-up that Paul Heckingbottom is conscious of in terms of his side’s itinerary, but also in terms of fitness.

The disruption to his side’s winter schedule – with home fixtures against QPR, Hull City and Middlesbrough all called off alongside the club’s originally scheduled trip to Preston on Boxing Day – has had a knock-on effect in terms of losing match sharpness.

The fact that the club have suffered with some individual absences due to Covid with several players still working their way back to full match fitness has compounded matters.

Given all that, United’s patchy return to action in terms of both performances and results can be partly explained. It was also perhaps a mitigating factor in their late drop-off against 10-man Preston in midweek.

Close: Paul Heckingbottom says the club are close to replacing former on-loan keeper Robin Olsen. Picture: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Heckingbottom, whose side were also very unfortunate in the sense that all of the league postponements occurred following outbreaks among their scheduled opponents, commented: “Where we got let down and handicapped was because our games were getting called off at the last-minute.

“As we had such a long extended period of time with that happening, in hindsight our training – and the work we would have done with the players on the pitch – would have been a lot heavier to keep in line how much it takes off you from (not playing) a game.

“Muscle injuries often come when your training load dips and ours massively dipped off through no fault of our own and then because we got thrown back into games; a Premier League team away in the FA Cup (at Wolves) is a big jump up.

“We are combatting against that in the next few weeks until we can get back on top of it.”

On the move: Sheffield United's Regan Slater looks set to join Yorkshire Championship rivals Hull City. Picture: Isaac Parkin / Sportimage

“It (the break in the club’s schedule) was a joke. We spoke about the things we put in place to try and combat Covid and especially this new outbreak and in how we changed the meeting room to have it more ventilated and with less bodies and always with two coaches (to games) – everything we could do to change and restrict the spread.

“We had seating arrangements on coaches and I know plenty of clubs who did not do that. Some then get big outbreaks in one go and cancel games and they are probably over and through it (now) and we are getting one or two (Covid absences) each time. In terms of a competitive advantage, we cannot condone it.

“We would have been better off getting (a raft of Covid cases) all together in the same week and (then) being over it. We have suffered from that.”

The fact that United’s list of remaining home games is still comfortably into double figures at least presents an opportunity for some precious momentum.

That certainly is one positive to take from it all.

Heckingbottom added: “We are desperate to get back and perform. It’s good we have more home games than away, hopefully the atmosphere is great and we can deliver a good front-foot performance against a good side holding their own and doing really well.”

Alongside building his players’ match sharpness back up and being conscious of managing the workloads of those affected by Covid, Heckingbottom is not just wise to the here and now on winning games and regaining the imetus that was building nicely just before Christmas.

The January transfer window is about to enter its home stretch, with the club anxious to bring in another centre-half option after missing out on John Souttar.

They are also in the market for another goalkeeper after Robin Olsen’s exit and, as it stands, that is where the most progress has been made as opposed to bringing in outfield players.

Heckingbottom said: “As it stands, no we aren’t closer. Goalkeeper wise, yes – we are closer on that. We have been looking overseas. A hell of a lot of work is being done with players and hopefully we can get some in. It will be through no lack of effort.”

One player who is likely to depart at some time before the close of business is Regan Slater.

The midfielder is a long-time target of Hull with Heckingbottom expecting him to link up with City soon and be re-united with ex-Blades striker Tyler Smith.

On Slater, who spent last season on loan in East Yorkshire, the Blades chief continued: “Things are moving. He (Regan) was close to going there in the summer and would have been good for him.

“I have spent a lot of time with Regan and his application has been first class. In all honesty, he wants to get his career rolling again. Hull are close.”