Sheffield United boss Paul Heckingbottom says his team’s performance against Nottingham Forest ‘epitomises’ their improvement under him, while the manager has also reacted to an assault on Billy Sharp after the match.
United had a tough task on their hands to reach the Championship play-off final after losing the first leg of their semi-final 2-1 at Bramall Lane. But a much-improved display in the return leg saw the Blades get back on level terms, sending the tie into extra time and then penalties.
Forest star Brennan Johnson scored in the 19th minute to put the home side 3-1 up on aggregate.
But an equaliser from Morgan Gibbs-White after the break, followed by a John Fleck goal in the 75th minute, saw Heckingbottom’s side claw their way back into the semi-final.
Sheffield United had a great chance to win it deep into extra time when Iliman Ndiaye shot from just a couple of yards out. But Forest keeper Brice Samba somehow managed to block the effort.
And Samba would go on to be the hero, saving spot-kicks from Oli Norwood, Conor Hourihane and Gibbs-White to send Steve Cooper’s men to Wembley.
United were 16th when Heckingbottom took over in November, but the 44-year-old managed to turn things around and they went on to finish fifth.
During a post-match interview with Sky Sports, Heckingbottom said: “The feeling is pride. From day one, working with them, the staff as well. They’ve been fantastic, that performance today epitomises that. I’m proud of them, the fans will be proud, their families will be proud.”
Paul Heckingbottom labels his players ‘first class’
On the fight his players demonstrated, Heckingbottom added: “It was the same the last game. Big moments, the first attack again they [Forest] scored. It’s frustrating, the boys know. But before that and then after that we were first class.”
Heckingbottom then gave an insight into his half time team talk. “I want us to show fight, I want us to show pride,” he said. “We were never gonna go out with a whimper. Not a chance. I just reminded them of that – [it is] your last chance.”
The manager added: “I didn’t prepare anything to say for us going out, I thought we’d win. Everything I saw on the pitch told me the same. We just didn’t quite get over the line.”
Attention then turned to the players who missed their penalties. But Heckingbottom insists it is a group effort, no matter what.
“We’ve got 11 out there who started, the boys who came on, whether they stepped up and took a penalty or not, the boys who were injured. Everyone’s contributed to get us here. Just as we win together, we lose together, so it’s irrelevant,” he said.
After the match, United skipper Sharp was assaulted by a Forest fan amid the pitch invasion. On the issue, Heckingbottom said: “I’ve seen so many examples of players being put in danger and nothing is ever done about it. There will be something done about that. We’ve seen what’s happened.
“There’s a prison sentence there without a doubt. How can you come to work and be assaulted. It’s bang out of order.”