Sheff Utd started this season without last year's loanees Tommy Doyle and James McAtee, while key men Iliman Ndiaye and Sander Berge have been sold; Follow Nottingham Forest vs Sheff Utd on Friday with our dedicated blog and watch match highlights shortly after full-time; kick-off 7.45pm
Tuesday 6 February 2024 16:29, UK
Sheffield United face Nottingham Forest on Friday night for the first time since their play-off semi-final defeat at the City Ground 15 months. Sky Sports News senior reporter Tim Thornton explains why a challenging summer won't be used as an excuse to derail their bid for Premier League survival...
Sheffield United are a work in progress - and Paul Heckingbottom is clear that what happens between now and September 1, when the transfer window closes, could define their season.
The United boss has already made seven signings and is keen to add more, but it is the loss of his four most influential players from last season that has made this summer a difficult one for him to navigate.
Manchester City duo Tommy Doyle and James McAtee returned to their parent club, while Iliman Ndiaye has departed to Marseille and Sander Berge to Burnley.
Both Ndiaye and Berge were into the final 12 months of their deals at Bramall Lane and Heckingbottom admits he knew there was a chance they could leave. But their departures have made the task of staying up in the Premier League even tougher.
"It has been as difficult as it could be," he said. "I wanted to prepare everyone for what could happen and guess what? It has happened. But there's no time for excuses now.
"The focus and determination of the group is paramount"
Frustratingly for Heckingbottom, he was close to getting star striker Ndiaye to sign a new deal. The Senegal international was a key figure in last season's promotion, scoring 14 goals. And on the pre-season tour of Portugal, the club thought they had a deal agreed and were preparing to make an announcement.
The media team were working on a reveal video for his new contract. It would have been a huge statement. But the lure of returning to a club he supported as a boy was too much for Ndiaye and he opted to sign for Marseille.
It would be easy in these circumstances for the Sheffield United boss to become negative. But Heckingbottom isn't a manager who looks for excuses. His side could have found reasons to fail last season when they were placed under a transfer embargo, but they overcame that obstacle to gain promotion.
Again this summer they have had huge challenges. And now they have another massive one: to get their recruitment right in the next fortnight.
The transfer blueprint this summer has been to sign young players with hunger and potential but Heckingbottom hinted last week that he would like to add some experience as well.
The arrival of Tom Davies, who has played his whole career in the Premier League, is a good example of the market Sheffield United are shopping in. He is a talented footballer, still only 25, and with potential still to unlock.
Central defender John Egan, who has taken over from Billy Sharp as the new club captain, believes the current squad can rise to the challenge of being back in the Premier League.
"Obviously it makes it more difficult when you lose big players, but that is football and it happens in every transfer window," he said. "It creates opportunity and we have a tight-knit squad who will always back each other.
"We worked really hard to get back after two years. We know it is going to be extremely difficult and tough, but we're going to give 100 per cent.
"The league gets better every year but we're coming up with some momentum behind us."
Egan is also taking heart from last season, when all three newly-promoted sides managed to avoid the drop.
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"It's quite unique that the three promoted sides stayed up last season. It gives us confidence that the sides who have gone up before us have stayed up but it is up to us to do everything we can to make sure we get results.
"The last time in the Premier League the fans couldn't come to Bramall Lane after the first six or seven months because of Covid. It will give us a big edge to have the fans back, but we have to try and generate the buzz inside the stadium.
"We missed it a lot last time when we were relegated, and we're delighted we can give the fans Premier League football again."
Follow Nottingham Forest vs Sheff Utd on Friday with our dedicated live blog and watch full match highlights on skysports.com shortly after full-time