Sheffield United v West Brom: Paul Heckingbottom out to upset Steve Bruce return

PAUL HECKINGBOTTOM can appreciate the pitfalls of being a visiting manager handed an opening assignment in charge of his new club at Bramall Lane better than most.

For new West Brom manager Steve Bruce this evening, read Heckingbottom almost exactly four years to the day on February 10, 2018.

Sheffield United chief Heckingbottom lost his first game at the Leeds United helm at S2, with the Blades prevailing 2-1 in front of a parochial atmosphere and Unitedites would dearly take something resembling a re-run.

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It was not a particularly memorable opener for Heckingbottom, whose Leeds side were on the receiving end of a Billy Sharp double.

Sheffield United's manager Paul Heckingbottom. Picture: Getty Images

Just as Leeds were not in stellar form ahead of their visit to the steel city four years ago, so the Albion side who Bruce has inherited from Valerien Ismael are also on the crest of a slump.

The Baggies have won just three of their last 13 league matches and face a United side who have their mojo back under Heckingbottom, winning six out of eight Championship games under his watch so far.

Their form is such that a home victory tonight would see United draw level on points with the Midlanders, who overpowered them 4-0 in the reverse fixture in the autumn. A fair bit has changed since, for sure.

Heckingbottom said: “That’s the target – to keep chasing teams down above us. We have got seven of the top eight at home between now and the end of the season and they will all be great games for us.

Steve Bruce is back in Sheffield tonight, havng managed both Wednesday and United. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

“There is no greater motivation than when you can get a win against someone above you and catch them up. Of course, that’s on everyone’s minds.

“But it is how we approach it and perform which will give us the best possible chance.”

Home form will undoubtedly determine whether United break through into the top six and crucially stay there.

It proved the bedrock of their promotions under Chris Wilder in 2016-17 and 2018-19 in seasons when visits to Bramall Lane were onerous ones for most away sides.

Due to his connections with Sheffield Wednesday and given the Blades’ form, Bruce arguably could not have wished for a stiffer first match in charge tonight.

He has had good days at the Lane for sure, but also some bad ones, with a grim 4-1 loss while in charge at Aston Villa there in September 2018 effectively marking the beginning of the end of his time there.

The countdown began and he was axed just over a month later, with Heckingbottom now entrusted with making life difficult for Bruce again this evening.

He continued: “With the nature of the way the fixtures have panned out, we have ended up with 12 of our last 19 games at home. We want them to be a real positive and to feel the force of Bramall Lane.

“Having brought teams to Bramall Lane and experienced life in the opposition dug-out, if you get the fans on your side, it doesn’t half give you a lift and advantage and drive you on and put extra energy in your legs as a home player.

“At the same time, it takes that energy away from the opposition and is powerful and like a ‘12th man.’ I have experienced it on the other end and it can add to that uneasy feeling when you are the opposition – that feeling of a relentless wave against you.

“We want that for the remaining 12 games (here) and we are going to need it, looking at where we are in the league.”

The Blades face an Albion side who have won just once on the road since late September, but Heckingbottom admits that planning is more complicated by the fact that he has little inkling of the make-up of Bruce’s side until he inspects the teamsheet tonight.

“We were expecting a tough, difficult game anyway. But when you get new managers, everyone will be out to impress,” he added.

“We are not too sure what Steve will do and what changes he will make, but he will certainly want to imprint his own identity on the team.

“We are just looking after ourselves. We will do as much homework as we can, but a lot of it may be irrelevant.

“We will do all the ‘prep’ anyway and see what team is announced before kick-off. But our focus will be on us and how we approach the game.”

Last six games: Sheffield United LLDWWW; West Brom DLLWLL.

Referee: L Doughty (Lancashire).

Last time: Sheffield United 2 West Brom 1, February 2, 2021; Premier League.