When things started to spiral out of control at Bramall Lane last season, Sheffield United fell from the dizzying heights of a Premier League top-half finish to relegation back to the Championship within the course of just 12 months.
The cherry on top of that unwanted cake was the departure of stalwart and fan favourite Chris Wilder— the man who guided the Blades from the third division on English football to ninth in the Premier League.
The appointment of former Watford and Fulham boss SlavišaJokanovićwould have restored the belief in the stands ahead of this season, and Sheffield United were tipped for promotion back to the promised land in the odds on the English Football League Championship.
However, fast forward to the end of November and the Serbian has already been sacked by Sheffield United after winning just six times in 19 Championship games and the club are already starting another new era under the guidance of a familiar face in the form of Paul Heckingbottom, who took the reins as caretaker boss for the remainder of last season after the sacking of Wilder.
The club’s chief executive, Stephen Bettis, claims that Heckingbottom’s ‘style and ethos matches that of the club’, while the 44-year-old manager told BBC Radio Sheffield that he is confident he can guide the Bramall Lane outfit back to the Premier League this season.
“I honestly believe that’s [promotion] achievable this season,” Heckingbottom said. “I’ve the added bonus that I’ve worked with them and they know me and I know them.If I thought these players were nowhere near then why would I be sat here? I know we can do it, and it’s my immediate aim this season.”
Of course, the season is far from a write-off for the Blades. Heckingbottom and his new backroom staff, which is fronted by assistant manager Stuart McCall, took control with the Yorkshire side just eight points adrift from the play-offs and they got off to the perfect start with a fantastic 2-0 win over Bristol City in their first game in charge.
Heckingbottom was given a warm welcome from the Bramall Lane crowd ahead of the game and he was the last man to leave the pitch afterwards, making sure he acknowledged every last one of his players and every corner of the ground, which has the highest average attendance in the Championship, before making his way back down the tunnel and out of the wintery conditions.
Interestingly, Heckingbottom made just one change from Jokanović’s final starting XI, and he didn’t exactly have a choice — replacing John Fleck, who collapsed in that game against Reading, with a revitalised Conor Hourihane— while he also stuck with the Serb’s 3-4-2-1 formation.
The difference in terms of tactics was there for all to see though. The frustratingly slow, at time aimless, build up under Jokanović was replaced with a much higher tempo and full-backs Jayden Bogle and Enda Stevens were allowed to get forward more, giving Oliver Norwood and Hourihane more options when looking for forward passes.
The front three of Morgan Gibbs-White, David McGoldrick and Rhian Brewster worked well together, with the latter scoring, while Hourihane was allowed more freedom to get further up the pitch and support the attacking trio, which led to the Irishman, who is on loan from Aston Villa, getting into dangerous position and causing the opposition issues.
It is a good start to his second stint at the Sheffield United helm. In fact, he couldn’t have asked for anything more really. But one win isn’t going to be enough to convince those looking for Championship tips that the Blades are now one of the favourites for promotion.
There is still a long way to go, and while it is still possible for Sheffield United to nab something from this season, they need to go on a really good run over the festive period to get back into contention and hopefully with some confidence built up and additions to the squad in January, a promotion charge will be on the cards.