Blooming Heck: Sheffield United's Miracle Worker Has Them Heading Back To The Top

Paul Heckingbottom has turned the Blades into a Premier League concern once more
08:00, 07 Feb 2023

It’s fair to say that Paul Heckingbottom didn’t have the most glittering managerial CV before becoming a success at Sheffield United. So much so, even Sheffield United didn’t initially want him as their head coach.

After a decent spell with Barnsley, where he won the EFL Trophy and got the Reds promoted to the Championship via the play-offs, the former full-back was handed the Leeds United job in 2018. He lasted less than four months there after winning just four of 16 matches and, with Leeds being Leeds, they pulled the trigger quickly once the season was done with.

He was in his next job for under nine months, losing his mandate at Hibernian after a 5-2 walloping by Celtic in the Betfred Cup semi-final at a time when the Hibees were struggling down the bottom of the Scottish Premiership table. For a former defender, his side’s woes at the back must have been a particular bone of contention.


Given those two quick exits, it seemed a sensible move for Heckingbottom to join up with Chris Wilder’s Blades in the summer of 2020 as the club’s under-23s manager. Many bosses can jump too speedily back into the firing line after a couple of chastening experiences, believing that just to be the way of the managerial merry-go-round. But Heckingbottom instead looked at the benefits of letting somebody else steer the ship while he went back to a position of learning.

After Wilder departed Bramall Lane in the midst of their disastrous second season back in the Premier League in 2020-21, Heckingbottom was handed the reins for the remainder of the campaign. Their 5-0 loss at Leicester City in his first match and four subsequent defeats would have left many people broken, but he managed to somehow coax three wins out of the final six games as United eventually finished with 23 points having at one stage looked likely to challenge Derby County’s record for the worst record in the league’s history.

But when it came to appointing Wilder’s successor that summer, the Blades board decided they hadn’t seen enough in Heckingbottom and instead transported him back to his permanent gig in charge of the under-23s while Slavisa Jokanovic was brought in to assume the position of top dog having previously gained promotion with both Watford and Fulham.

The Serb lasted just 19 league games though, as the club’s slow start to the Championship season saw them drop to 17th in the table and prompted a rethink. Heckingbottom was given another shot at the hot seat, but this time on a four-and-a-half-year deal. From unwanted in the summer, he was suddenly deemed the perfect man around whom to build the future. Whatever the change of mind, it has worked wonders in S2.


United went on to lose only five of their remaining 27 Championship fixtures, earning a spot in the play-off semi-finals in which they were edged out on penalties by Nottingham Forest. And in 2022-23 they have fared even better, stringing together an eight-game unbeaten run which has seen them partner Burnley in leaving the other promotion hopefuls battling only for play-off places. With 17 games left they have a 10-point cushion in the race to return to the Premier League, and Heckingbottom is rightly being lauded for his transformation of the Blades’ fortunes in 14 short months in charge.

Only Bosnian centre-back Anel Ahmedhodzic and back-up goalkeeper Adam Davies have been signed on permanent deals as Heckingbottom has gone about making a unified team out of Jokanovic’s previously misfiring squad, supplementing the ranks with loan stars such as Tommy Doyle and James McAtee.

But his biggest success stories have been in getting misfiring forward Oli McBurnie banging in goals and turning Iliman Ndiaye into a free-scoring Senegal World Cup star. Add to that his ability to build the Championship’s stingiest defensive line, and Heckingbottom has made United a real force this term. While the club is now in the middle of takeover talks, there can be no doubting who should lead them into their latest Premier League adventure come the summer.

On Tuesday night United host National League front-runners Wrexham in the FA Cup fourth-round replay they so nearly didn’t earn as their 10 men trailed 3-2 in the fifth minute of injury time in last Sunday’s encounter at the Racecourse Ground. But it was typical of the feeling the 45-year-old has built at Bramall Lane that they found a way to stay in the running.

If they finish off the job at the second time of asking, they will host Tottenham Hotspur in round five. Blades fans will tell you it’s not just one Premier League clash they’re after, it’s 38, but that attitude says much about the brilliant job Heckingbottom is doing to make Sheffield United a top-flight club once more.

Not bad for a guy they very nearly allowed to slip the net just 21 months ago.


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