WHEN Nottingham Forest keeper Brice Samba broke Sheffield United hearts with his hat-trick of saves in a play-off penalty shootout, Paul Heckingbottom got straight to work.
There was no moping about at Bramall Lane from anyone feeling sorry for themselves.
Instead Heckingbottom and his team reflected on how close they had gone to making an instant return to the Premier League after overcoming a slow start to last season under previous boss Slavisa Jokanovic.
And there was a steely determination in the red and white half of the Steel City to hit the ground running this time around — and they have certainly done that.
Reda Khadra’s winner in the fourth minute of stoppage time at Swansea on Tuesday night consolidated the Blades’ position at the top of the Championship.
Heckingbottom told SunSport: “I must give credit to everyone since that shootout against Nottingham Forest in the play-off semi-final. That is where all the work started in regard to this coming season.
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"Had we been sulking or slow to move on, we’d not have had as strong a start as we have had.
“I just felt we had run out of time last season because we had such a strong finish. Had the season been a month longer, we’d have finished even higher than the fifth position we finally achieved.
“Certainly at the City Ground, we just ran out of time. We managed to get ourselves from 3-1 down on aggregate to 3-3 and pushed for the winner.
"Had we played another five or 10 minutes in that game, I’d have fancied us to have gone on to reach the final.
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“We had nothing to worry about or anything to fear going into this season, other than maybe a hangover or feeling sorry for ourselves. That is what we guarded against.”
Heckingbottom won the August SkyBet Championship manager of the month.
And he said the club had to be shrewd during the summer — balancing the needs of strengthening the squad with keeping on top of finances being lowered due to a second season outside the top-flight.
But he brought in Sweden centre-half Anel Ahmedhodzic from Malmo for £4million and worked the loan market by recruiting the likes of Man City duo James McAtee and Tommy Doyle, Ciaran Clarke from Newcastle and Khadra from Brighton.
And the Blades chief was happy with a good pre-season build-up and said: “All those things were important in terms of getting us to hit the ground running.”
I put it to Heckingbottom that three of their outstanding players so far have been striker Oli McBurnie, midfielder Sander Berge and Ahmedhodzic.
Keeping Berge during the transfer window was as good and important as making a marquee signing — such is his influence on the team.
Heckingbottom agreed and said: “It was huge to keep him. He is a great person, good player and if I am honest I expected him to go.
“So I’m delighted I can still use him. He’s happy to be here. He has been fantastic with the way he has behaved. His performances have shown that.
"He comes into training every day with a smile on his face, has trained harder than anyone and he’s reaping the benefits.
“While he continues playing like that, there’s nothing you can do to stop someone coming in for him but hopefully that’s a while away yet.”
McBurnie has been a frustrating player for Blades fans following his £20million move from Swansea in 2019.
He had not scored a league goal since November 2020 until he finally netted against Luton last month, sparking three goals in successive games.
His hard-working performances up top have been crucial.
And Heckingbottom said: “I’m delighted for Oli.
“He had bad luck when we took over. He suffered more injuries than most last season.
“We could’ve seen the form he has been showing much earlier.
“To get himself fit, he has worked hard and when he has got over his broken foot he has had a few more weeks training and we’ve given him minutes in the under-21s and then when he has been called upon he has hit the ground running.
“That is all the hard work he has put in and what the staff have put in.”
Ahmedhodzic has been rock solid in defence and is looking like a bargain buy.
The Blades chief said: “I’ve been impressed with him. I was convinced he’d be good otherwise I’d not have tried to get him.
“The way he has stepped into it and hit the ground running. It’s a big bonus.
"He can be pleased and proud of himself. One of the reasons he came and we liked him, we felt he was someone who can kick on and play at an even higher level than this.
“He’s determined to do that, we’re determined to do that and hopefully we can both achieve it.”
Heckingbottom knows that the one you do need to get out of the Championship is consistency in a league that is consistent for being inconsistent.
And he said: “The margins are so fine. There are clubs that will have a lot of talent in their squads — and we’re talking Premier League talent — who are not quite on it that day who will get turned over.
“We’d like to think we have some good players but our best attribute is having that mentality who try to win every game and keep our standards high so when we do get beat a team will have to play well.
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“The ultimate goal of every team is to get promoted with the prize at the end of it but we’re a long way from thinking about that, never mind talking about it.
“We’re breaking the season into little phases and concentrating on getting the consistency of performance. Hopefully we will be there at the back of the season.”
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