“Training has slipped”, “standards have slipped” and a turbulent week in which manager Chris Wilder left Sheffield United was brought to a close with an “embarrassing performance”.
Those were Blades captain Billy Sharp’s words after the Premier League’s bottom side fell to a 5-0 defeat by Leicester City on Sunday, without the guidance of Wilder for the first time in almost five years.
After leading the club from English football’s third tier to the Premier League, Wilder’s departure by “mutual consent” was confirmed on Saturday, leaving Under-23s boss Paul Heckingbottom in charge until the end of the season.
Heckingbottom was only able to meet with his players on Sunday due to Covid-19 protocols, and his first game at the helm could not have proved more sobering.
Against Leicester, United fell to their worst league defeat since April 2000, when they were beaten 5-0 by Blackburn Rovers in the second tier, and their worst in all competitions since September 2008, when they lost 6-0 to Arsenal in the League Cup.
The Blades conceded five goals only once in 227 matches under Wilder, and never lost by more than a three-goal margin, but life without the man who oversaw a ninth-placed finish on their return to the top flight last season is off to a dismal start.
‘Embarrassing from every single one of us’
Boyhood Sheffield United supporter and current captain Sharp is in his third spell with his hometown club, who he helped win the League One title in 2017.
He returned to Bramall Lane for a third spell in 2015, having begun his career there in 2004.
But the 35-year-old described Sunday’s display as “one of the worst performances since I’ve been back at the club”.
“Unacceptable performance. No excuses. Embarrassing performance from every single one of us. Very poor,” Sharp told Sky Sports.
“The gulf between them and us was men against boys. I’m not saying nobody tried, it was just the quality. We didn’t have a shot on goal, which is embarrassing. If we’re not careful, there will be a few more results like that.”
The Yorkshire club are rock-bottom of the Premier League and Brighton’s earlier victory over Southampton means Sheffield United are 14 points adrift of safety with nine games remaining – and 27 points to play for.
They have won just four games all season and their 14-point haul after 29 matches is a colossal fall from the 44 points they had amassed at the same stage in 2019-20.
“I have felt it was coming but it was always a shock when it happens,” Sharp said of Wilder’s departure.
“It’s no excuse but we went out there and put on a performance which was unacceptable. We have let each other down. Training has slipped. Individual standards have slipped, which goes through the team. Today was terrible.”
Heckingbottom ‘in touch’ with Wilder
Heckingbottom, who has previously had spells in charge of Barnsley, Leeds United and Hibernian, is to be supported by former Bournemouth manager Jason Tindall from Monday, with an FA Cup quarter-final against Chelsea to come next Sunday.
In the meantime, Sunday’s loss saw Heckingbottom become only the third manager in Premier League history to lose by as many as five goals in his first game in charge.
With the Blades looking near-certain to be playing Championship football next season, it falls to Heckingbottom to ensure his side maintain some spirit ahead of a new season – which will hopefully see the return of fans to Bramall Lane.
“We know the circumstances behind it. It’s been a tough week in losing Chris [Wilder]. He is a mate of mine and I’ve been in touch with him a few times,” Heckingbottom told BBC Sport. “The players and the staff have lost their leader. It’s an emotional dressing room.
“It’s a sad time but we have to look forward. There is still a lot of football to play. There were lots of habits in that performance which haven’t been there before. The standards have been slipping. I’m here to help between now and the end of the season.”
Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live, he added: “It’s the culmination of a tough few days for the players. Chris brought me to the club, so from a personal point of view I miss him. We have to be professional, we know that, but certainly the impact Chris has had on this football club probably does magnify the emotions and the feelings that everyone is going through.
“All the fans I have spoken to, a lot of them are heartbroken. Everything comes to an end, but it’s really sad when it comes after a long period of success.”