When Sheffield United were relegated after their second season back in the Premier League, their final tally of 23 points slotted in as the seventh-lowest return in the history of the competition.
Given that – and the fact their 29 defeats represented a joint-league record – there was every reason for a shake up at Bramall Lane last summer. With Chris Wilder having left his job as manager in March, the new chief would have a clean slate to build from, too.
Interim boss Paul Heckingbottom stepped up from his role as U23s manager to oversee the final 10 games of 2020/21, guiding the Blades to three wins along the way, leading to speculation that he might be that man.
“I’d be lying if I said there was a happy atmosphere at the club at that time – there wasn’t,” defender George Baldock says in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports.
“We had such a good time during the first season in the Premier League and everything was sunshine and rainbows. Last year was tough, especially with the manager [Wilder] going. I had a special relationship with him for so long, but when Paul Heckingbottom came in, he really raised everyone’s spirits.
“He wouldn’t allow anyone to get down and feel sorry for themselves. The season was done, in terms of relegation, and it was just about restoring some pride. We won a few games, which was pleasing, and we started to look a bit more like ourselves.
“It gave us a chance to prepare for returning to the Championship, but there was the element of the unknown as well because we didn’t know who was going to be the manager, what philosophy would be in place and things like that.”
In the end, the club opted for glamour over ongoing stability and Slavisa Jokanovic was the candidate selected to take the club forward.
“It’s a famous thing to say, ‘We need time’,” he told Sky Sports in an interview last August.
“OK, me and the coaching staff need time but I don’t ask it of the supporters. They pay the tickets to enjoy the team and the victories. I know what the supporters want. Our job is to make them happy. That’s part of the deal.”
The sentiment were there, and, in all honesty, the Serb’s key experience was plain to see, too: he had taken Watford out of the Championship in 2015 and then done the same with Fulham three years later.
There were always bound to be teething issues – they are to be expected after relegation. What was not part of the deal was dropping to second bottom after no wins, three defeats and one goal scored in the first five games.
Perhaps it was down to his decision to switch from the Blades’ 3-5-2 system, which had worked so well during the Wilder years, to a 4-2-3-1 with a possession-based approach, but the results did not improve drastically enough thereafter and, with the club sat 16th after 19 games, on November 25, Jokanovic departed.
Sheff Utd’s record under Heckingbottom vs Jokanovic
“It was just frustrating to get off to such a slow start this year and play catch-up all year,” Baldock says.
“I’ve not got a bad word to say about him [Jokanovic]. He was really good, really professional and he obviously knows his stuff. He’s a very well-respected manager. But I’ve been at Sheffield United for five seasons and I know what the fans expect.
“They like their good football, but they also like fast, aggressive football with pressing and physicality and we just came away from that and we lost our identity a little bit. Who knows, if he had persisted it may have been successful in the end.”
On the same day Jokanovic departed less than six months into a three-year contract, Heckingbottom was once again brought in to oversee first-team proceedings – this time on a permanent basis.
So what changed?
“It was as seamless as any manager change I’ve experienced!” adds Baldock with a smile. “He came straight in, everyone knew him and everyone knew his face as he still was around the place under the last management.
“Everyone felt comfortable with him, but he’s got that edge where you aren’t too comfortable around him; you are always training on the edge, playing on the edge; your shirt is never set in stone. Everyone lifted their game, like you do with a new manager, you want to impress.
“He picked up just where he left off and everyone loves him around the place. I see a lot of traits similar to Chris Wilder with the way he goes about things, but he’s also his own manager and that’s probably something he’d reiterate.
“I think the obvious change to mention is the formation. Everyone was comfortable in their positions – that’s not to say these players can’t play in different positions – as a lot of the players had been recruited for a specific system under Chris Wilder for such a long time.
“Under the previous manager, it was that transitional period of playing a different formation, a different way of playing and slightly slower in the build-up. It just didn’t click for one reason or another. Hecky just went back to basics, went back to the 3-5-2 formation and slightly tweaked it in different games.
“But it was more the training standards and intensity went right through the roof, which is what I – and a lot of the players – have been used to at this club. You just saw that on a matchday; everyone was a lot more intense. When you play at that intensity, you cause opposition teams a lot more trouble.”
His tweaks have worked, too. Since his appointment, Sheffield United have climbed clear of the bottom half after 13 wins and seven draws from his 25 games in charge. It was exactly what Heckingbottom envisaged – some fans must wonder where the club would be had he started the season in charge.
Sheffield United’s remaining fixtures
- QPR (A) – Friday April 29, 7.45pm – Live on Sky Sports
- Fulham (H) – Saturday May 7, 12.30pm
“When Hecky first came in, we had a meeting and he looked everyone in the eye and said: “This season isn’t done guys,” Baldock continues. “And he said it with such confidence.
“We knew that, as players, we were good enough to beat anyone in the league on our day; it was just finding that run of consistency and building that momentum again. He reiterated to us that the season wasn’t done by any stretch of the imagination and was so eager to climb the league as quickly as possible. That gave us confidence and I’m sure it gave a lot of the younger lads confidence as well.
“We were able to go about our business quietly because everyone had written us off and, all of a sudden, we were back in the mix.”
The defensive solidity has seen a marked improvement, too. In Jokanovic’s 19 league games in charge, the Blades conceded 26 goals and kept five clean sheets, whereas under his successor, they have shipped 18 in 25 and kept 14 clean sheets.
Averages per game under Heckingbottom & Jokanovic
|Points||Goals scored||Goals conceded|
“We work really hard on defending the box, but I think it comes down to our overall intensity,” he says.
“The front players work tirelessly at pressing and keeping the opposition players as far away from our box as possible. If you looked deeper into it, we’ve probably faced less shots, less shots on targets and the ‘keeper having to deal with less crosses [since the management change].
“We’ve got a ‘keeper [Wes Foderingham] who is at the top of his game at the minute, so when they do break through, he has been there to save the day on many occasions. Overall, again, it comes down to that organisation and intensity that Hecky has brought to the club.”
With two games left to play, the Blades occupy the final play-off spot, with two points between them and Middlesbrough – ironically, now managed by Wilder.
Whether they keep that place is entirely in their hands at this point, but Baldock remains coy on his side’s chances, even at this point.
“Anything can change – it’s the business end of the season and all of the clubs that are down there are picking up points because they know what’s at stake.
“Every fixture is going to be difficult, but we just need to go about our business. Since Hecky has come in, it has been about climbing the table, so we’ll try and do that, climb as high as we can.
“This city is such a passionate city. I live in the city, so I bump into Blades fans all the time and they are always telling me about the history of the club. They should be playing at the top level and that’s hopefully where we can get them back to.
“They are a passionate fanbase, but also an honest fanbase and they knew it was going to be a difficult season. But we’ve given them hope in recent times and, hopefully now, with a bit of momentum and positivity, we can get in those play-off positions and kick on.”
For so long it looked as though this season would be remembered for mid-table mediocrity for Sheffield United, but with Heckingbottom at the wheel, Baldock and his team-mates could be back on the way back to the big time much sooner than expected.
But first, two cup finals lie ahead…