Heckingbottom had to go but Sheffield United’s timing gives Wilder less chance to recover

Dave Tickner
Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom arrives for a Premier League match.
Paul Heckingbottom arrives for a Premier League match.

Paul Heckingbottom had to go, but Sheffield United have chewed up two vital six-pointers and now the new manager faces a nightmare start to an impossible job.


Sheffield United had no real choice but to cut their losses on Paul Heckingbottom, but the decision to hold off last month has now cost them dearly.

We’re not keen on criticising clubs for giving managers too long because it’s generally less bad than the alternative extreme. But Sheffield United have given Heckingbottom too long. They’ve been too rotten in too many games, and now it might already be too late.

If you’re sacking your manager a week into December, you’ve got it wrong. Because it really means you should have done it in November. This is a rubbish time to sack a manager. In November you’ve got an international break for a new manager to bed in. You’re still in one-game-a-week mode, giving time to bring in new ideas.

December is a bloody nightmare even for managers who’ve been in place for years. There’s games every three or four days. There’s no time to breathe. And while it does at least give a new manager some time to survey his squad before attempting any January activity, it’s all too frantic for those decisions to be reliable.

And if you’re officially confirming the sacking of your manager and the appointment of his replacement over talkSPORT, you’ve got it really, really wrong. That shouldn’t need saying but apparently does.

The Blades’ position is slightly redeemed by the fact the new man isn’t really all that new. Chris Wilder being Heckingbottom’s likeliest replacement has been an open secret all season; he knew he just had to wait and his old job would find its way back to him, and as someone who has never stopped following the club’s fortunes he will come in with eyes open and already a fair idea of what needs to happen next.

That helps, but there is a more exact reason why Sheffield United specifically have ballsed the timing of this right up. Their fixture list.

READ: Heckingbottom joins De Boer, Pardew in being forced out as Premier League manager by Burnley

Giving Heckingbottom these extra two games after the international break was not a risk-free choice. What it’s ended up doing is chewing up two vital six-pointers and, it turns out, chew them up disastrously. Games that could have given a real chance for a new manager bounce against Bournemouth and Burnley have instead resulted in defeats by a combined scoreline of 8-1.

Now even a manager who Knows The Club and has Sheffield United DNA comes in to a full-blown crisis. Instead of a bit of time and a couple of winnable games to make an impression, it’s a whirlwind. And for Sheffield United, it’s a particularly shitty whirlwind. Before December is out they face Liverpool, Brentford, Chelsea, Aston Villa, Luton and Manchester City. If the Luton game doesn’t go well, they might well be doomed by the time that little run is over and before anyone has had time to catch their breath and adapt to the changes.

It’s admirable to stick with a manager if the signs are there that things could improve. We saw it last season with Nottingham Forest and Steve Cooper, although whether he can ride out this season remains in doubt; he’s already assumed the top spot vacated by Heckingbottom in the Sack Race betting.

In hindsight, that dramatic late win over Wolves and battling point at Brighton just before the break might have been the worst things that could have happened for the Blades. Those results, coupled with Burnley’s really quite surprisingly massive shitness, had masked just how bad Sheffield United’s start had been. Recovering to a position of five points from 12 games really only shows how bad the first 10 were. Five points from 12 games is not a position it should be possible to ‘recover’ to.

And now it’s all so much worse. The timing is miserable, the fixture list daunting, the mood darker than it would have been at any other time.

There is, of course, sympathy for United and Heckingbottom here. A reign that started with a 5-0 defeat as interim boss against Leicester ends with a 5-0 defeat against Burnley. Most of what happened in between was very good indeed, but this season was going more wrong than the club cared to admit as the struggles of others allowed them to think they might still be alright.

Collecting four of your five points from the first third of the season right before the most natural manager-sacking window of the season almost forced Sheffield United to stick with him despite the misgivings engendered by collecting a single point from the first 10 games of the season.

And now it’s a mess. Sheffield United have managed to end up in a situation where they’ve lost 11 of their first 14 games of the season and the biggest issue might just be the back-to-back games where they collected four points.