Paul Heckingbottom eager to get Sheffield United fans back inside Bramall Lane

YOU have to go back 18 months for the last time that Paul Heckingbottom managed a competitive game in front of fans – in his final match in charge of Hibernian in November, 2019.

As for managing south of the border with spectators in attendance, it extends further to three years when he led Leeds United out for the last time against QPR at Elland Road at the end of the 2017-18 campaign.

Those games were not particularly memorable for the Sheffield United caretaker-manager. One was an end-of-season ‘dead rubber’ with the other being a one-sided Scottish League Cup semi-final which saw Hibs lose out to Celtic – with Heckingbottom departing the Edinburgh club soon after.

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But at least, it represented normality. The combined aggregate attendance for both fixtures was just shy of 77,000.

Sheffield United supporters will return to Bramall Lane this month. Picture: PA

The wags may suggest that it has been a good time for Unitedites to miss out from watching their side in 2020-21, given a fraught and forgettable campaign. But for many, making do without the rituals of matchday has still been a tough cross to bear, even accounting for fortunes on the pitch.

United may be relegated, but a semblance of normality will ensue at least later this month.

A limited number of fans, currently excluded because of the Covid-19 pandemic, will be able to return to Premier League games for the last two matches of the season from May 17, subject to Government approval.

The Blades’ first fixture after that date arrives on the final day of the campaign against Burnley on May 23, with tomorrow’s Bramall Lane game with Crystal Palace hopefully being the last to take place behind closed doors.

Sheffield United's Paul Heckingbottom. Picture: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

Regardless of their side’s vicissitudes and the fact that the May 23 game will have nothing riding on it, it will be a big day for those Blades followers present.

Heckingbottom said: “From our point of view and the players and staff, we want fans back in our ground and we cannot wait. Speaking from a personal point of view, it is not the same standing on the sidelines with no fans. You could be anywhere.

“From the bigger point of view, it shows we are on the way out and the road to recovery in getting back to what it used to be.

“My life is football and a lot of people are the same as me. It will be a big indicator for us as ‘football people’ that we are on the way back to normality. It is a really good signpost of what is to come.

“We are all hoping and expecting that next season, we will have the fans in and behind us and everyone is sharing the same feelings and emotions and wanting the same things.”

For Heckingbottom, the absence of supporters has also had a negative knock-on effect in terms of refereeing standards, with stop-start games often becoming the norm and games being sterile in his words at a time when technology and the officials have become the story as opposed to the players and fans.

He added: “We have had VAR and games being refereed differently and there’s no atmosphere. We are beginning to tolerate things on a pitch – fouls and things – which I am unhappy with and we are giving free-kicks for things we should not be.

“I know if fans had been in, it would have been refereed in a different way and we would still have a slightly different game on our hands as we need to be careful where it is going.

“So I cannot wait for fans to get back in and referees to be affected by the crowd as much as players and the atmosphere to be raucous and lively, because at the minute it is bland and sterile.”

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