Pep Guardiola has inspired me to take Sheffield United to the brink of the Prem.. now we're out to ruin his Treble dream | The Sun

Pep Guardiola has inspired me to take Sheffield United to the brink of the Prem.. now we're out to ruin his Treble dream | The Sun

April 21, 2023

PEP GUARDIOLA has revolutionised not just the Premier League but the Championship too.

That is the view of Sheffield United boss Paul Heckingbottom, who pits his wits against the Spaniard at Wembley on Saturday in the FA Cup semi-final.

While Manchester City are chasing the first Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup treble since rivals United achieved it 24 years ago, the Blades could complete their own unique double.

They need just three points from their last four games to return to the Premier League at the second attempt — and, as unlikely as it may seem, can lift the FA Cup too.

Most teams in the second tier now try to play the sort of football that Guardiola has made his trademark.

And Heckingbottom told SunSport: “When Pep Guardiola managed Barcelona, they became so dominant and the matches they were involved in changed a lot of people, a lot of young coaches in the way we see the game.

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“And when I say ‘we’, I mean the English FA and how we were changing as young coaches in England and working within our academies. It coincided with a big shift in mentality there as well.   

“When young coaches are looking for a possession-based style of football or making plays, comfortable on the ball and able to handle it under pressure, Barcelona were held up as the team to watch.   

“Proceeding to Manchester City, he’s had a big influence on the English game. A lot of people have seen and experienced it first-hand. He’s gone on to show what a top coach he is with the results they’ve had. 

“We’re under no illusions as to what type of test we’re facing. We know it’ll be a big challenge and a gauge to see how far off we are from these top teams.” 

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Heckingbottom has done a superb job with the Blades. 

Many people in the red half of the Steel City wish he had been given the job permanently after being in caretaker charge for the club’s last 11 Premier League games two years ago following Chris Wilder’s departure.

Instead they opted for Slavisa Jokanovic, who had previously led Fulham to promotion, but he was sacked in November 2021 and the club turned back to the popular Yorkshireman.

And he almost led them straight back to the top flight, only to lose to Nottingham Forest on penalties in the play-off semi-finals.

Heckingbottom has fused possession-based football with a hearts-on-sleeve and up-and-at-them approach traditionally expected from a second tier team — and built a mentally-tough culture.

He said: “We do mental work without explicitly calling it that. It's how we try and work every day. We’ve got some strong characters in the group and wanted to bring that into how we work and train — and that's a no-excuses culture. 

“A lot tends to be said about footballers, and how good they are tactically and technically, but ‘is he a good person or teammate?’ We’ve a lot of those guys so it’s been important to bring that out in us and put as much value in that mentality as someone scoring or assisting a goal. 

“Rather than have mental and psychological sessions, we try to live it and make sure everyone becomes a part of what we are as a group of people. That’s been the best way to enhance that and try and grow it.” 

Burnley and Sheffield United have been the two standout teams in the Championship. 

Vincent Kompany’s Clarets have already booked their place back but the Blades have been put under pressure over the last couple of months by the relentless form of both Middlesbrough and Luton.

“It’ll be a big challenge and a gauge to see how far off we are from these top teams.”

They have also had to deal with off-the-field noise surrounding the potential takeover of the club by Nigerian tech businessman Dozy Mmobuosi, who has still not satisfied the EFL that he has passed their fit-and-proper owners’ test. 

Heckingbottom said: “We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing and focusing on ourselves. Middlesbrough and Luton have been in fantastic form, they’ll fight until the death.

“They both have nothing to lose as they’re chasing us. They want to confirm their play-off positions but, in the meantime, they can have a go at chasing us down.  

“Both teams are dangerous and we must expect that they’ll win every game but each time we win their margin for error becomes smaller and smaller.

"We’ve been in this position all season with that target on our backs and have managed it well so we just need to maintain that and not get distracted by the off-field situation. 

“We’ve had documented things surrounding the club, but we’ve tried to keep our focus and make sure that as a group of people – not just a football team – that we keep focussed on what our job is, which is trying to prepare well, train well and win games. 

“Regardless of what’s been happening, the focus and mentality of the players has been excellent, and that has transferred onto the pitch.”

Sheffield United’s FA Cup run has done little to hinder their Championship campaign. 

Although promotion to the Premier League is the No1 target, Heckingbottom has not allowed either the FA Cup or league to get in the way of each other.

He said: “When the FA Cup has come around it’s become our most important match. Our games have been a big part of this FA Cup story this season. 

“We had our first game away at Millwall where we were dominant, performed well and won 2-0. 

“Then we were involved with Wrexham which brought about its own story – we were a big part of that.  

“Our squad, our players showed what we are about in those games. We came back and equalised with ten men, away from home in a difficult game, in a strange atmosphere to get a replay. 

“And then the same at home, we were dominant but behind again and then we had to find a way to win the game, which we did.

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“Our victory against Tottenham was talked about as a big implication of Spurs but it was a big moment for us as well. 

“So, we’ve enjoyed every game in the cup.. But we’ve put the cup in its place. We’ve never let the cup overtake the league and likewise when we’ve had that cup game, we’ve never been prioritising the next league game. It’s all been about trying to win the game in front of us.”

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