Sheffield United v Manchester United: Paul Heckingbottom on how a Sir Alex Ferguson mindset is shaping Blades
The mindset around Sheffield United has been the bedrock of their success over the last two seasons – a no-excuses, never feel sorry for yourselves, uncomplaining, hard-working attitude that made up for shortcomings elsewhere to get them back into the Premier League.
Already, though, it is being sorely tested in an unforgiving environment where the deck is so stacked financially against Prince Abdullah’s paupers and the disappointments are coming thick and fast – seven defeats in the opening eight matches and, thanks in no small part to the brilliance of Jordan Pickford, no win in the other one, either.
At times like this, Lady Luck has a habit of laughing in your face. The international break which saw uber-durable captain John Egan go under the knife began with his vice-captain and fellow centre-back Chris Basham breaking his ankle in fairly gruesome fashion at Fulham.
Chuck in surgery for summer signing Tom Davies and the Blades' season so far has been much like Saturday’s matchday forecast for the visit of Manchester United: it never rains but it doesn't half pour.
Times like this need strong minds. Fortunately, Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom had one heck of a football upbringing.
Of course a childhood in Barnsley played a huge part in framing who Heckingbottom is, but he also spent time in what was certainly then English football's best finishing school: the Manchester United academy.
The Red Devils may not be what they once were, paying the price for selling their soul to American profiteers and even going into hock themselves for the privilege. But Heckingbottom saw the world famous club at its best when at his most impressionable age.
The defender was in Manchester United's under-16s in 1993, when the seniors won their first league title since the halcyon days of Charlton, Law and Best.
Plain Alex Ferguson as he was then was starting to exert his iron grip on a group of players like future Blades managers Bryan Robson and Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes, Paul Ince, Peter Schmeichel and very soon Roy Keane – all blessed with formidable skill but cased in steel. Sandwiched between Heckingbottom and them was an under-18s side featuring David Beckham, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Keith Gillespie and Robbie Savage.
Heckingbottom never made it to first-team level but it was far from a wasted experience, those years shaping him for a playing career which would take in Barnsley, Bradford City, Sheffield Wednesday and Scarborough amongst others but also the coaching path which has followed.
"They did," he reflects, "because there were some really good role models there during that time. Obviously the manager working with young players and their work ethic, plus the coaches I had.
"It definitely had a big impact on me. A lot of it I’m aware of and there’s probably a lot of it I’m not really aware of.
"In terms of Manchester United as a club, it’s unrecognisable now to what it was when I was there. It’s a totally different club – the set-up, the environment and the dynamic of young players coming through to the first-team.
"It was good for me in my early years, but in terms of comparing United’s position then to where they are now, it’s totally different."
Not many were like Ferguson during his trophy-winning peak of the 1990s and fewer still are now. Working on a much smaller scale than the global institution his Blades must try and match at Bramall Lane on Saturday night, Heckingbottom really does feel like a "manager" in an era of coaches, though.
"When you’re looking at football clubs, sometimes the simpler you make things – the less people are involved in the decision-making process – the easier things are to run," says Heckingbottom as Saturday’s hosts prepare to welcome Sir Jim Ratcliffe as a new investor with a hankering to run the football operation.
"Everyone’s got an opinion until it’s their neck on the line and then guess what? They don’t want to give an opinion.
"Ferguson was a massive part of it and the size of United – how big it’s grown on and off the pitch – has made it a monster.
"It was growing when Sir Alex was there, he had control of the monster as it got bigger."
But even when there is clearly one man in charge, the United of Ferguson and the United of Heckingbottom are both about team-work. Ask the Yorkshireman about the Red Devils' latest great hope, striker Rasmus Hojland, and his Old Trafford brainwashing kicks in immediately, as does his competitive spirit.
"It’s not just about Hojlund," he replies. "They have got moments in them as a team, similar to Manchester City, where you might not have the ball but you can be in total control and feel comfortable. And then the game can be taken away, so the concentration is key.
"The team ethic is key and at the same time, us trying to hurt them.
"It’s going to be an enjoyable game – live on TV and under the lights at Bramall Lane."
Ferguson and co taught him well.