Injuries, suspensions, supporters’ anger and just two wins since he took over, has seen the pressure mount on Leeds boss Paul Heckingbottom. But he says he can see better days ahead. Phil Hay reports.
Paul Heckingbottom’s surprise at seeing his job called into question this week was not the same as saying that this part of his career is going well. “Horrific” was Heckingbottom’s verdict on his two-month stint as Leeds United head coach, and criticism of it is no more than he expects.
The club’s results leave him prone to scepticism and results are what Championship managers survive on but Heckingbottom sees dropped points and unsatisfying football as byproducts of a chronic bill of health at Elland Road. Leeds are without form, without players and with four more games of this season to play, without any purpose.
Heckingbottom realised that impetus was not on his side when he replaced Thomas Christiansen in February but it has rarely showed much sign of returning and attention is turning to his performance in the absence of any diversions. At Aston Villa tonight, Heckingbottom wants his players to feel “jealousy” about Villa’s strong league position. “At this stage you want to be playing for something,” he said. “I hope the players feel that way.”
The bigger picture in that discussion is that Villa spent money which Leeds don’t have or haven’t committed to their own playing squad but the speculation about Heckingbottom’s future and the inevitability of new signings this summer means he and his players are playing for something, assuming that decisions are not already being taken above their heads. It was reported on Wednesday that Leeds’ owner, Andrea Radrizzani, is contemplating another change of head coach, three months after paying £500,000 to take Heckingbottom from Barnsley.
For Heckingbottom, the start of a transfer window in which he is safely on board and has meaningful influence would be a relief. Only two of Leeds’ Championship wins this season have come on his watch. His injury list is extensive and at Villa Park he might have no alternative but to pair two academy centre-backs, Paudie O’Connor and Hugo Diaz, against one of the most expensive forward lines in the league. Villa have Albert Adomah and Robert Snodgrass, and Scott Hogan and Jack Grealish. Jonathan Kodjia is fit again after ankle surgery.
“It’s been a horrific spell,” Heckingbottom said, “and results will always dictate whether you’re in a job or not but they wouldn’t change what I’m doing. The results wouldn’t change it. I wouldn’t be sat here saying different things and the work going off behind the scenes wouldn’t be any different either. It would be exactly the same.
“Whilst we’ve had kicks in the teeth with injury after injury, we’ve got to use that as a positive and look at the players who are stepping in, ready for next season. If we didn’t do that and we just moaned about the situation, we wouldn’t be best equipped for next season.
“It’s horrible and you see me sometimes after games. It’s not a nice feeling when you get beat. But it’s part of the job and you have to go through those moments to get out the other end and get out stronger.”
This story of this season is far more complicated than a simple failing on the part of United’s head coaches, despite the sustained insistence from the club’s board that the squad at Elland Road were good enough to make the play-offs, but the issue for Heckingbottom has been the absence of palpable, positive change in the way Leeds are playing, the standard of their defending or their constitution. As was shown as Preston North End on Tuesday, they are as liable to cave in as they were under Christiansen. Leeds sacked the Dane with their squad in 12th. They are 14th now, 12 matches later, and only 10 points better off.
Heckingbottom admitted that the tally was well below his expected return. “Yeah, too right,” he said. “But I’m certainly not one to look back and say ‘in this game…’ because every manager can do that and everybody does it. I’ve had conversations, ‘what if that hadn’t hit the bar, what if they hadn’t scored’, but if you want to be successful it’s about making sure those things don’t happen. You always need bits of luck to go your way and you can’t deny that but you have to make it happen. That’s why we’ll never moan about it.
“That’s the word, frustrating. You get wound up by it. You get wound up by the results, wound up by things not going our way. But as I say to the players, you have to make it go your way.”
Heckingbottom’s players have consistently spoken favourably about his personality and coaching methods. Kemar Roofe took his turn yesterday. “I like him,” the forward said. “He’s been honest with all of us and he’s keeping the game simple.
“He’s gone back to basics and it’ll be good next season when he gets the players he wants and gets his own pre-season in.” Why, then, the lack of improvement now? “We’re just in a bad patch,” Roofe said. “I’m not just disappointed for him but for ourselves as well. It’s our names involved, not just him. He’s not the one on the pitch kicking the ball about. We are.”
When Radrizzani appointed Heckingbottom on an 18-month contract, he asked no more than for Heckingbottom to do his best to keep the club in touch with the play-offs. The gap initially was eight points (it has since increased to 14) and the 40-year-old took on injuries and an unusually high number of suspensions.
“In that moment you’re thinking ‘let’s see when we get everyone back’,” he said. “But it (the injury list) has actually got worse. That’s the frustrating thing for me. But there was still lots to play for in terms of a new manager coming in and a change of approach for next season.
“There were just two things we looked at. Can we keep in touch with the play-offs? And once they’re dead, we’re building for next season. We’d have liked to do more in terms of how we to play with personnel but we couldn’t.
“That’s our biggest problem at the minute, the horrendous injury list. And not only that, the positions where we’re getting injured and the standard of players who are getting injured.”
Heckingbottom was able to outline the plan for the forthcoming transfer window, saying Leeds would cut the numbers in their squad and alter the current culture in which numerous well-paid players appear to have no prospect of playing, even with so many absentees. “Slimmer with more quality” was how Heckingbottom visualised his resources and his use of academy players in the past month has been partly designed to create a junior crop who Leeds can involve next season.
“The league never lies,” Heckingbottom said. “As a season, as a club, we’re not where we want to be so things have to change. We’re not satisfied with this season. Certainly not.
“We’ll have to do a lot of good work to improve this squad. We want it less in numbers but higher in quality and we want to know exactly what’s beneath it in terms of younger players. So they’re getting good opportunities now.”
Some of them will play tonight and Villa, for good reason, will not hold back. Jack Grealish’s box-office volley on Tuesday earned a 1-0 win over Cardiff City and made Villa think that automatic promotion was within their reach once more. It might be gone again if they drop points this evening. “We have to sustain the levels,” said Villa manager Steve Bruce yesterday.
“They can win games in different ways which is why they’re near the top of the league,” Heckingbottom said. “They can be well on top and put teams to bed. They can win games defending well and they’ve got match-winners where even if they’re second best they can come out with three points. That’s what we’re up against.”