Paul Heckingbottom has been sacked by Sheffield United to become the first Premier League managerial dismissal of the season, with Chris Wilder set to replace him.
Heckingbottom’s two-year reign as manager ended on Monday morning following the 5-0 defeat at Burnley on Saturday.
Chris Wilder, the former United manager, is expected to be announced as his successor and will make an emotional return to Bramall Lane.
United are bottom of the league after 11 defeats from 14 matches and held talks with Heckingbottom on Monday.
He is the first manager in the top division to be sacked this season; last year Scott Parker (Bournemouth), Thomas Tuchel (Chelsea), Bruno Lage (Wolves), Steven Gerrard (Aston Villa) and Ralph Hasenhuttl (Southampton) had all been sacked before December.
Runners-up in the Championship last season, the club have come under scrutiny for their transfer strategy over the summer which resulted in the sales of key players Iliman Ndiaye and Sander Berge.
Heckingbottom admitted his frustration at being unable to keep his squad together following the heavy defeat at Turf Moor. Supporters also chanted “Hecky out” towards the end of the thrashing.
“I wanted to keep the group together but we couldn’t,” he told the BBC. “We couldn’t because of the last few years and the financial implications. If we’d tied them down [on longer contracts] then we probably wouldn’t have sold those players.
“There wasn’t a desire from the ownership to sell, but a necessity from a business point of view. We’ve been making financial decisions rather than football decisions. Of course that affects me. I didn’t want it to happen.”
Wilder guided United to promotion out of League One and the Championship and is to replace Heckingbottom.
A former player for the club, Wilder left the club by mutual consent in March 2021 after nearly five years in charge.
He was last in work with Watford, spending just two months at Vicarage Road before leaving at the end of last season.
Why it has taken so long for first sacking
It has taken until December for the first Premier League manager, Paul Heckingbottom, to be sacked. By this time last season, five managers were already gone.
So, what is the difference in this campaign from the last?
Promoted team lacking quality
While Heckingbottom has the unwanted distinction of becoming the first Premier League manager dismissed, the issues at Sheffield United arguably stretch beyond the manager.
United’s ownership has been under scrutiny for some time and their summer transfer policy gave Heckingbottom little chance of progress.
After finishing runners-up in the Championship, the club sold two of their best players in Iliman Ndiaye and Sander Berge. The latter was sold to Burnley, which infuriated Heckingbottom and his coaching staff.
However, the performance on Saturday at Burnley was so poor it left the club with no option, while Heckingbottom’s comments about a lack of spending will have gone down badly with his board.
His dismissal was inevitable, and their displays this season have been more alarming than the results.
Luton have followed a similar path to United, admirably refusing to break their club model and wage structure, so their head coach Rob Edwards is arguably performing above expectations. Finishing 17th would be the equivalent of winning a cup final.
Burnley undertook a heavy recruitment drive under Vincent Kompany yet only secured their second win of the season on Saturday. The squad of players are also wedded to Kompany’s philosophy and style of play.
Everton’s 10-point deduction is the only reason why the three promoted clubs do not currently occupy the relegation zone.
Not many people will have forecast many other clubs outside the promoted teams being relegated at the start of the season.
Loyalty of promoted clubs to their managers
Burnley spent more than £90 million this summer and made their worst start to a season in over 50 years, but Kompany retains the full backing of his board.
JJ Watt, a minority shareholder at the club, said last week that Kompany “ain’t going, I’ll tell you right now” and chairman Alan Pace is also understood to be completely behind the manager.
Pace has argued that the amount of new signings ensure it will take time to gel, and there has been little speculation about the former Manchester City captain’s future.
Edwards at Luton has a close relationship with the board and supporters, and is arguably one of the safest managers in the Premier League.
There is a realism at Luton and an understanding of why the club works to such strict financial parameters.
Lack of alternative options
Chris Wilder is set to be appointed as Heckingbottom’s replacement at Sheffield United and, while it will be popular with some supporters, it is hardly a bold appointment.
United will regard Wilder as risk-free, but it underlines the paucity of quality managers available.
Julen Lopetegui, the former Wolves head coach, is on the market and seeking a quick return to the Premier League but would regard himself as too good for Bramall Lane.
United, and indeed Luton, would have little success in persuading highly regarded managers in the Championship, such as Kieran McKenna and Carlos Corberan, to jump ship.
Other clubs in the top division have also hesitated due to the lack of options, which is why Heckingbottom becomes the first casualty.
However, United’s decision to blink first and dismiss Heckingbottom could now see other clubs take action.
Steve Cooper at Nottingham Forest seems to have been under permanent pressure since the club’s promotion, while Roy Hodgson’s future at Crystal Palace is in doubt. Bournemouth’s Andoni Iraola has recovered from a very difficult start, but his position is understood to have been in jeopardy before the 2-1 win over Burnley on October 28.