Paul Heckingbottom has become the first Premier League manager to be sacked this season as Sheffield United pulled the trigger following a dismal start that has seen them win just once in 14 league games.
Former manager Chris Wilder will replace Heckingbottom, after being described by the club’s owner, Prince Abdullah, as “the best guy on planet earth to take over the club right now in these circumstances”.
The 5-0 humiliation at the hands of relegation rivals Burnley over the weekend proved to be the final straw. That result, hot on the heels of a 3-1 home defeat to another potential struggler, Bournemouth, the previous week has left the Blades rooted to the foot of the Premier League table and already four points from safety.
That the first top-flight managerial sacking of the campaign has not happened until 4 December is faintly remarkable. Last season, Scott Parker (Bournemouth), Thomas Tuchel (Chelsea), Bruno Lage (Wolves), Steven Gerrard (Aston Villa) and Ralph Hasenhuttl (Southampton) had all been sacked before the calendar flipped to December.
But Heckingbottom’s two-year reign at Bramall Lane finally comes to an end, with former Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder the early favourite to retake the role, having been without a job since his short-term contract with Watford expired back in May.
Speaking to TalkSport, Prince Abdullah confirmed the news.
“Chris is very optimistic he can save the season, he doesn’t think it’s easy, but he thinks it’s still possible,” he said. “When you look at the table it’s a very special year, a very weird year when it comes to the standings, so it’s still early, the season is still long and we have every chance to achieve our goals.”
Wilder is still hugely popular with Blades fans after securing promotion from League One and then the Championship during his first spell in charge before guiding United to ninth in their first season back in the Premier League – their highest finish since 1992. He left by mutual consent in March 2021 with the club bottom of the table.
Heckingbottom became something of a victim of his own success, securing promotion ahead of schedule with a superb runners-up finish in the Championship last season but not being given backing in the transfer market over the summer. They lost key players such as Sander Berge and Iliman Ndiaye ahead of their return to top-flight football.
“I have mixed emotions about letting Paul go,” Prince Abdullah said. “I really have a lot of respect for Paul and everything he did for the club, he’s a very classy guy. I’ve been at the club for five years and we changed one manager and that was Slav [Slavisa Jokanovic], so we believe in sticking with the manager and supporting him.
“But I felt like after the last few games it was a necessary decision and the replacement has done great things for the clubs and knows the club, so I feel good about the decision in one way but I really have a tremendous respect for Paul.”
Supporters chanted “Hecky out” during the dismal defeat to Burnley – during which Oli McBurnie was sent off for twice elbowing opponents, causing his manager to say of the Scot “he’s let me down” – but Heckingbottom had vowed to fight on.
“I bet they’re [the fans] nearly as angry as me,” Heckingbottom said. “I’ve had this now since the beginning of September. But the one thing I can say is I can walk out of this stadium with my head held high.
“I know how hard I work for everyone at the club. I won’t change, I’ll make sure the staff do the same. And we continue to give everything we’ve got with what we’ve got. That won’t change. But, as I said the first time I was asked this, you’re asking the wrong person (about his future)…
“Of course if fans start changing, it changes the dynamic. It doesn’t change how I feel or my job. I just said to the players in there, I can walk out with my head held high but you can’t kid people. The fans are right to shout, say that wasn’t good enough. I was almost singing along with them at one point.”
Sheffield United host Liverpool in midweek before playing Brentford next weekend.