Wembley was at stake in the FA Cup quarter-final, but before that, the most important thing was to show that the previous week’s 5-0 defeat at Leicester City was a short-lived bout of post-traumatic stress disorder, not a longer-term problem.
In making Chelsea work hard for their 2-0 victory, secured via an own goal and a strike from virtually the last kick of the game, the Blades at least did that but Heckingbottom made clear afterwards he was interested in doing more than just the bare minimum.
The men in pink produced 45 minutes of spirited, organised damage limitation and when their interim manager challenged them to do more, if David McGoldrick’s header had just been better, they might have.
It was a massive improvement on seven days earlier. Thrown together in the East Midlands, with Covid-19 regulations keeping Heckingbottom away from his players until the morning of the game, it was not a surprise the performance that followed was a bit of a shambles, but only when they played again would we know it was not a one-off.
Even so, Heckingbottom was busy talking to the media when he thought he should still be shouting at his players from the technical area, having done enough to earn extra-time.
“It’s bitter-sweet because we’ve been knocked out of the FA Cup and I thought it was there for us,” he reflected. “It wasn’t for a lack of effort or quality.
“The game was there for us, what an opportunity.
“I think I’ll get more and more disappointed as the day goes on. We could have, should have won the game.”
You certainly would not have said that during the early stages when barely anything had happened for the television viewers.
The Blades were disciplined and extremely well organised in their defending, a back five featuring only one centre-back (Phil Jagielka) extremely well marshalled by Aaron Ramsdale forcing Chelsea into a game of patience.
On the sidelines, Heckingbottom and Jason Tindall stationed themselves on the edge of the technical area, adding further noisy directions to look and sound like joint managers. Chris Wilder’s former coaches Alan Knill, Matt Prestridge, Darren Ward and Mike Allen were all at home, the club slightly bizarrely revealing they had made an “offer” to keep Knill, who is under contract until 2024.
McGoldrick hit an early shot at Kepa Arrizabalaga and Jagielka lobbed a header up from a corner for him to catch, but to call either chances would be an insult even to a goalkeeper whose stock has fallen as rapidly as the Spaniard’s.
Still, it was 43 minutes until the hosts, for all their possession, had a shot on target.
They still managed to score in that time, mind.
Callum Hudson-Odoi fired in a 23rd-minute cross and with Olivier Giroud running in on it, Ramsdale put it behind for a corner which ended up at the feet of Ben Chilwell on the opposite side of the field. When he drilled the ball in, Norwood directed it past his goalkeeper.
Norwood was Chelsea’s biggest attacking the threat in the first half, giving the ball up for the chance Ramsdale rushed off his line to save from Christian Pulisic.
Heckingbottom demanded more of his players in the second half and got it.
“I thought we were poor in possession (in the first half), weren’t brave enough and didn’t press high up enough in the pitch,” said Heckingbottom. “We demanded more bravery.
“The most significant difference was we were better with the ball, which allowed us to be the better team in the second half.”
McGoldrick was pushed closer to Oli McBurnie and Jayden Bogle and Ben Osborn were more wing-backs than full-backs. Rhian Brewster and Oli Burke came off the bench to join McGoldrick in a front three for the final 12 minutes, and Lys Mousset made it four. Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel began swapping forwards for more defensive players.
Inevitably it meant more action at the other end too, Ramsdale starting the half by saving with his legs from Pulisic, then seeing an Emerson free-kick go wide of his goal.
Hudson-Odoi blazed high and wide.
John Lundstram’s cross to John Fleck was cut out, but when a massive chance fell to McGoldrick, he could not take it.
By then he had already been caught offside to spoil a good Osborn run – in fairness the defenders were all behind him – and seen the ball trickle out for a throw-in with some poor control.
“Who’s in the box?” demanded Heckingbottom as Lundstram shaped over a 68th-minute cross. The answer was McGoldrick, but his diving header went wide. A minute later, Arrizabalaga saved from Oli McBurnie.
McGoldrick forced the ball across from the byline without a touch, then Enda Stevens headed a Norwood free-kick just wide at the far post, and Brewster rippled the net from the wrong side with a deflected 90th-minute shot.
When Chelsea broke in stoppage time, Ziyech controlled and volleyed in one of the last kicks of what did actually prove to be a contest. There was pride, at least, to be salvaged from that.
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