Paul Heckingbottom's plan for Sheffield United progress after two years papering over the cracks

Paul Heckingbottom says the first-team results he has produced for two years have papered over the cracks at Sheffield United which are beginning to show without them.

To outsiders, all appeared sweetness and light at Bramall Lane once Heckingbottom inherited a side in danger of getting dragged into the 2021-22 Championship relegation zone and took them to within a penalty shoot-out of the play-off final.

Last season they won promotion without going into extra time.

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But this campaign has so far been record-breakingly bad, one point from 10 games and a goal difference of minus 22 making it the worst start to a campaign in the Premier League's 31-year history.

Some might be shocked, but not those who follow the club. They know the difficulties Heckingbottom has encountered since taking over in November 2021, when each transfer window weakened rather than strengthened the squad.

Even with parachute payments skewing their balance sheet, they were still placed under a transfer embargo in January for failing to pay transfer instalments on time.

This summer they spent the relative pittance of £20m upgrading the second-best team in last season's Championship to try and be competitive in the world’s best league. A flurry of late spending only came from money raised selling their two best players – Sander Berge and Iliman Ndiaye – in early August.

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That context is crucial when assessing whether Heckingbottom should keep his job if Wolverhampton Wanderers extend their miserable start at Bramall Lane on Saturday.

FIGHTING FIRES: Sheffield United manager Paul HeckingbottomFIGHTING FIRES: Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom
FIGHTING FIRES: Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom

Asked if he was the right man to lead the team even if – as seems increasingly likely – they are relegated, Heckingbottom put forward the case for the defence.

"That’s not my decision," replied a man who acknowledges the question is valid. "Could I do? Yes, 100 per cent.”

If you judge Heckingbottom purely on results, there is no doubt he should have cleared his desk long ago but the lack of investment in previous windows means he is only now trying to rebuild the team which took the Blades from League One to ninth in the 2019-20 top-flight but was relegated the following season despite a flurry of spending which stopped it developing structurally off the field.

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"Everyone could see the changes we've made and how that would benefit us,” argues Heckingbottom, favourite or second favourite behind Manchester United’s Erik ten Hag to be the next Premier League manager out of work, depending which bookmaker you ask. “But it’s like last season when everyone thought it was rosy – the first-team results papers over any cracks.

"The job on the pitch in the last two years has hidden a lot and meant we could get on with all that stuff unnoticed.

"Generally, when a club is struggling financially, you have a transfer embargo on you and are giving a lot of academy players debuts, that correlates with a relegation.

"We did the opposite – so that’s a reflection of the alignment between the academy and the first team and the environment the boys have all created here in terms of the demands.

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"That won’t change, but we need to keep pushing those things forward to keep delivering a better player when they are 17, 18 and 19, then selling players when we need to sell them so that we have more money to reinvest in the first-team squad. That’s the plan."