The Blades recently announced interim manager Heckingbottom was on a five-man shortlist for the permanent job but the former Barnsley and Leeds United chief’s cause has not been helped by some lacklustre performances in difficult circumstances.
It has now been suggested the club have gone away from their list to approach Slavisa Jokanovic, a candidate they previously appeared strangely lukewarm towards.
Regardless of whether Heckingbottom gets the job or not, his inclusion on the shortlist despite having publicly said he wanted to return to his post with the Under-23s shows he is well thought of at Bramall Lane, and the hierarchy have been canvassing his opinions about the future of the club.
With their budget restricted, Heckingbottom says the Blades will make “minimal” changes in the transfer market this summer after two hugely contrasting Premier League seasons.
“I think it will be single figures in and out, definitely,” he said. “If it was an open budget you are looking at going and getting whoever you want to manage, with whatever remit to buy however many players, but it won’t be that.
“It’s going to be making the most of this group who have been successful before, but going back and highlighting what was successful about this group.
“They are quite open about how honest and hard-working they were as a team. As a group, they might not have been the best players on the pitch, but we have been the best team.
“That’s what the aim needs to be for next season, being the best team on the pitch. But there will be fresh faces. Those fresh faces have to get into the XI.
“If you are only signing three players but those three players are getting into your XI every week that’s a new team. Those three would have to be great lads if they are going to shake up the squad enough to get promoted again.
“It will be minimal numbers but more quality in terms of the signings coming in and affecting the XI.”
The Blades broke their club record transfer fee six times during their two years back in the top flight but relegation and the impact of Covid-19 will put a huge strain on finances.
Norwich City and Watford won promotion back to the Premier League at the first attempt by maintaining a high level of continuity, as did League One champions Hull City, relegated from the Championship in 2020. The third team to drop out of last season’s Premier League, Bournemouth, have qualified for the play-offs.
All three made at least two eight-figure player sales to partly offset the huge loss of revenue after relegation but the Canaries, like Hull, retained their manager, the Hornets continued a policy of constantly changing like-minded coaches and the Cherries appointed Eddie Howe’s assistant, Jason Tindall, to succeed him, before replacing Tindall with Jonathan Woodgate in February.
Chris Wilder’s departure as Blades manager is expected to herald a change of direction with more emphasis on overseas signings and less managerial input in them. With three games to play the Blades have 17 points and a record-equalling 28 defeats, six from Heckingbottom’s seven matches (plus one FA Cup defeat) in temporary charge.
Heckingbottom does not think the dismal end to the season will have much impact on next term. “It will be better if we win games, clearly, but I’m not worried about there being any sort of hangover,” he insisted. “There shouldn’t be because we’ll be starting afresh in a different league.”
Oostende’s Alexander Blessin was thought to be the preferred candidate but does not meet post-Brexit work permit requirements. Jokanovic does, and won promotion from the Championship with Watford in 2015 and Fulham in 2018. With his family based in this country, he was keen to talk to the Blades when Wilder left and it seemed logical to at least have discussions.
After last season’s top-half finish, Wilder focused his summer recruitment on bringing down the average age of the squad, recognising mainstays such as Chris Basham, Enda Stevens, David McGoldrick and Billy Sharp were in their 30s. Oliver Norwood is now 30, and John Fleck reaches the milestone in August.
Heckingbottom handed striker Daniel Jebbison, 17, a Premier League debut on Saturday, having already given 21-year-old Iliman Ndiaye his head in March. In January, 16-year-old Antoine Hackford played for the first time.
The Blades have few players who could be sold for big amounts. Sander Berge, who played in the Champions League before joining, is one, and John Egan, who attracted interest last season, another but the Covid-affected summer transfer window is not expected to favour sellers.
Meanwhile, the Blades are investigating video footage purportedly showing striker Oli McBurnie involved in an altercation in the streets.
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